Some great albums take awhile to get into. The initial listen can seem like work rather than recreation; it can sometimes take another two or three spins before the newness of the sound begins to rub itself off, becoming more comfortable and familiar with each successive listen. And then it soon becomes obvious: "This is a great album - why did it take so long to realize it?"
Fleet Foxes' self-titled 2008 LP is not one of those albums. It's greatness is apparent upon the first listen. Indeed, the immediacy of the music can be startling, in part because of what was already stated: even great albums are usually discovered gradually. Fleet Foxes, rather, is akin to sitting in the woods on a pleasant fall afternoon and breathing in fresh, organic mountain air - there's no gradual discovery of how great the experience is, it just is.
A cursory categorization of Fleet Foxes pure, organic sound would be a form of folk-indie rock. But to really get to the heart and soul of the album's sound, one must start with the lead singer, Robin Pecknold. His voice is an effortless, pure tenor that anchor's the band's songs in such a way that recalls vintage 70's folk. Pecknold's vocals are recorded with an echo-tinged effect a-la John Denver, and they are similarly free of any pretension whatever. And while their earnestness is plain to hear, there is also a delightful gentleness to them, that at times can seem like they are imparting mountain lullabies for adults.
To pigeonhole Fleet Foxes as nostalgic folk, however, would be a mistake. The album delivers a series of delicious musical surprises throughout, beginning with the opening track "Sun It Rises." After a brief old-time folk verse intro, lush acoustic guitars fill both speakers, with the theme plucked lightly over them. Keyboards gently fade in in the background, and after the first verse, a banjo joins the peaceful melody. But then, after a harmonized chorus, a fuzz-tinged electric guitar rings out the theme sharply, instantly turning folk into rock. On the next track, a gorgeous vocal harmony-driven song called "White Winter Hymnal," a surfer-style electric guitar again sneaks its way in between verses, following along with a vocal line. And then there's the wonderful third track, a flat-out danceable rock song "Ragged Wood" that features a tempo change midway through, done with such a deft hand that the change doesn't seem at all gimmicky and fits perfectly.
Although the tone of Fleet Foxes could be described as one of furrowed reflection judging by what seem to be intense lyrical themes, the feeling of peace one feels while listening to the album is rarely disturbed. Even when Pecknold speaks of "staggering through premonitions of my death" and "turning myself into a demon" as he does in "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," he immediately follows with a gently-sung series of "la-da-da's" that fade out the song. In "Your Protector," a beautiful flute opens the song which later contains a starkly orchestrated passage involving the accusatory lines "You run with the devil." But even this doesn't hold sway with the reoccurring themes of waiting for a lover to return. Later, in perhaps the most poignant track on the album, "Blue Ridge Mountains," all concerns seem to be cast aside as Pecknold sings affectionately of a getaway with a brother to the "country side." In the song's unforgettable chorus melody, a familial challenge will be taken up, amongst a "quivering forest," frozen rivers, "moon glow," and finally "morning light."
In the album's final track "Oliver James," Pecknold sings with considerable vigor about a family caring for the body of a deceased brother. Even with seemingly foreboding hints of "ancient voices ringing soft upon your ear," there still seems to be peace in the body "washed in the rain no longer." It is here that Pecknold's voice ends the album a capella, which at first comes across as abrupt, but is perhaps a fitting conclusion in its austerity. Rarely does an album come across so naturally and so true, from beginning to end.