by Jared White
The first I heard of the Fleet Foxes was through an email from my sister, Miranda, who is currently living across the ocean in England. One morning last November, I woke up to find that she had taken advantage of the not-so-newfangled but newfangled-to-me gift feature on iTunes to send me their year old first album, not for my birthday or any special occasion except her own enthusiasm. Simply having music ping around the globe to show up in my email inbox was a memorable novelty in itself, but I felt far more arrested by the language that my sister was using to describe this music she was recommending to me. Miranda is given a bit to hyperbole (“The best Indian food I’ve ever tasted!”). Even so, her praise for the Fleet Foxes stood out as an arresting and unconventional bit of music criticism: “The singer Robin Pecknold has the best intonation I’ve ever heard.”
Intonation is one of those terms you seldom hear used to describe singers of popular music, because so often they are thought to be at the opposite end of the spectrum: untrained, raw, ecstatic, chthonic, sui generis, raggedy and impromptu. The most famous—certainly, most of my favorite—singers leverage personality, mood and style more than expertise or orthodoxy. Pop singers who are lauded for their pristine voices often seem a little ridiculous for their perfection, emotive past the point of bathetic. I think of the punchy tenor of Steve Perry from Journey, who I’ve read several times described unironically as the most flawless voice in rock music, ever. The search for the perfect pop sound even sometimes becomes a Faustian cautionary tale of the ego-mad rock star dumping a fortune into hi-fi microphones and Pro Tools setups as they keep trying to get the music clean enough or lush enough or glacial enough. It may be a function of anxiety as much as opportunity: for instance, Lindsay Buckingham dumping literally millions of dollars into a studio—and surely depleting the band’s energy—to produce Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
Intonation seems like a danger zone for pop music; slews of great singers prefer to feint and sidle alongside the shadows of notes, doing folky-croaky like Bob Dylan or Joanna Newsom or name your favorite bluesman, whinging, rasping, murmuring. Then there are wonderful singers who go beyond perfect into a weird personal space on the other side, like Freddie Mercury clambering up into his vibrato or David Sylvian easing down for some serious basso profundo. I was in a band a few years ago in which the singer had a charismatic way of hiding behind his Gibson guitar onstage like he was scared of the audience, and a talent for witty Morrissey-esque come-on/I-hate-you lines, but honestly he could not hit the notes. Off key almost worked as an aesthetic until we were in the studio and trying to layer harmony parts. We started fussing with auto-tune and it started sounding like our singer was having his windpipe squeezed painfully into pitch. Now it was correctly intoned, I suppose, but it gave me a headache. (The band broke up not long after we finished this round in the studio.)
So I probably was approaching Fleet Foxes with some caution and some curiosity in thinking of them as paragons of intonation. Intonation is a pretty ambiguous term: half “intoning” – which suggests drones and monotones and monks and rituals – and half “in tone” – all math and empyrean perfection, round edgeless sounds fulfilling themselves. Intonation can be full of emotion and abandon, the quasi-spiritual ecstasy of music bypassing language to infiltrate lonelier corners of the brain. Or it can be the over-emoting of the rock god, clobbering notes into submission. It’s also a strangely classical term, as if a band were impersonating chamber musicians in a string quartet. Besides obsessional fussiness, there’s also a yearning hint in intonation of the enfant terrible, the genius who hits notes perfectly without even trying. In any case, I love that my sister used it, for all its complicatedness; it is suggestive of the extent to which music can be as ambitious as its players, and the way that limits of genre are more a way of talking about music than actually composing it.
Whenever I start thinking we’re in a dry period for music, I usually question whether I’m just not listening hard enough, or whether these trends actually are cyclical, a few years of excitement in one city, then a waning into doldrums, then a flare-up in another. Still, at least in my listening experience, it felt like we have been coming off a period of retrenchment in music for the last few years, after most strands of good ‘80s rock had been plundered and reinvented—post punk like early XTC, new wave, no wave, name your poison—and the tastes slowly were moving in more and more obscure, experimental and acoustic directions. For my part, I’d been excited about this folky turn, but mostly for the rediscoveries of lost-in-the-bins 1960s and 1970s bands and singers coming back into availability. I was thrilled by Linda Perhacs, for instance, a Bay Area dental hygienist who cleaned the teeth of a mid-tier music producer in 1973 and ended up cutting a sole, wonderfully involuted and abstract folk album called Parallelograms before going back to her day job.
These kind of records seemed to my ongoing delight to be emerging by the bushel, perhaps a function of the Internet offering a way for obscurantist mini-labels to track down forgotten singers and bands of the past, such as the Numero Group label on their fantastic album of post-Joni Mitchell folk records, Ladies of the Canyon.
When I listened to the Fleet Foxes, I felt like I was hearing this music renovated and transfigured, the raw delicacy of the ramshackle and the contingent being digested, drawn back into the central stream of rock music. I felt myself reaching, like my sister, for hyperbole. The band harmonizes on many of the tracks, but not the way that harmonies often sound on records, with a clean overdubbing of one singer, hitting pretty thirds to fill out the melody on certain notes of a chorus. What you hear, curiously, on the Fleet Foxes album, are distinct but modest voices making chords together, often open chords, with a lot of parallel motion and stacked fourths and fifths that make the voices sound lush and empty at the same time. The voices have a flute-like quality of artlessness; they tend to use inverted chords with parallel motions that sometimes break the music theory rules for four-part harmony. I think of bands of the 1970s like Crosby, Stills & Nash or America, that greedy honeyed sound made out of pop harmonies, the sound of bonding that is also the sound of guys sitting on stools or maybe wicker chairs. Listening to these old songs in the light of the Fleet Foxes’ reinvention made me hear new qualities: the way, for instance, that Crosby, Stills & Nash retain personality inside a chord in spite of a flat uniform volume that hovers above the instrumentation. The voices in the Fleet Foxes sit further back in the mix but they have a bit more edge to them, exploring the prettier, flutier areas of their falsettos. The melodies tend to use more scales for their hooks, so the chords move up and down together in little eddies. Instead of the living room and back porch vibe of the 1970s bands that they and I admire, the Fleet Foxes’ voices sound like they are singing at the other end of a barn or a cathedral, a large space they expand into without ever filling.
In fact, I think it’s this quality that Miranda was hitting on when she used that strange word, intonation. As the voices of the Fleet Foxes enter, practically on each note, you can hear an incredible control of volume, as each note floats in gently and then swells in a crescendo that seems to happen not inside the lungs or the throat but in the air, the note not stagnating but expanding somehow into its fruition. The harmonies, which often sound more madrigal than doo-wop or folk, reinforce this quality of spaciousness of a thin thing becoming a wide thing, becoming enormous. The effect is to make each note seem certain, and reassured, and reassuring.
2. FLEET and Fleet Foxes
As I ponder this quality of the notes in the Fleet Foxes’ harmonies, the name of the band comes to the forefront of my mind. It’s a satisfying bit of sweet-on-the-tongue consonance, suggesting a pastoral scene of foxes dashing over rolling terrain, either themselves hunting smaller beasts or else outrunning the hounds hunting them. These are the kind of quick, possibly brown foxes that can jump over lazy dogs and get away with it; the “fleet” of the moniker, though, improves on “quick” with its confident swagger and slight oddness. Foxes are slightly odd, marvelous creatures after all, splitting the difference between dog and cat while remaining mercurial and wild.
I think there’s something fleet about the kind of vocal intonation that makes the Fleet Foxes so fun to listen to. The notes of the harmonies and of the lead singer’s vocals swell to maturity, and then they cut out, ruthlessly—they aren’t symmetrical with equal waxings and wanings. There’s something very truthful and poignant about this feature, these little half-dome arcs that come in slow and quit fast. They are, in a word, fleeting.
One of the most unusual aspects of the production on the Fleet Foxes album is the similarly resolute way that each song fades out, very abruptly, not waiting until it starts to repeat a closing gesture or savor a last note. Instead, a rough turn of the (digital) knob and it’s on to the next song. It’s an interesting choice, and suggests a kind of decisiveness that is unusual and almost dreamlike in its jagged stopping. This isn’t to say that the songs are unresolved when they close, but that they don’t linger.
Fleetness suggests a motion and a motility that also manifests in the structures of the songs, which are usually more ambitious and experimental than mere verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, instead opting for actual turns and linear progressions, pieces and ideas sutured next to each other seamlessly but not necessarily safely. Pecknold, who supposedly conceives the songs and writes the lyrics, has described the album in interviews as a first step on an artistic journey that has not yet come to fruition. He refers to Joanna Newsom’s puckish album Ys as an example of the dense, sequential, composed long-form music that he hopes to craft, someday.
It’s easier to hear how strange and edgy the songwriting is out of context. Trolling YouTube for music videos of the band, I found a clip of two Swedish teenage sisters sitting in the woods and covering the Fleet Foxes’ song “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” Calling themselves First Aid Kit, the sisters sit beneath a canopy of trees; they are appealingly clumsy in front of the camera until one gently plucks at an acoustic guitar and they start to sing. The girls sway back and forth and the music lilts along, a sinuous melody over a 1-2-3 waltz beat that gives the song a tender, courtly feel. Then, suddenly, the rhythm and the playing stop short. Vocally alone, and all of a sudden scary and loud, the singers keen, “I don’t know what I have done, I’m turning myself into a demon.” This coda’s melody is ungainly, hitting a static, dark-sounding minor third. The song has gone off a cliff, and it won’t come back.
More evidence of the Fleet Foxes making radical and “fleet” compositional choices comes through a bonus track available on a special edition of the CD, an older, rawer cut of a song called “Mykonos” that was later recorded (after the album had already been completed) on an EP called with characteristic panache, Sun Giant. On this “alternate take” the song opens with a plodding two-step, piano chords punctuated by tambourines on the backbeat; the music builds to crashing cymbals and guitars over a chorus then comes down, rebuilds to a second climax, then takes its time as it fades.
On the finished version, instead, the song begins with a rolling, plucked minor-key guitar line vaguely reminiscent of “Greensleeves” in its modal motion; the song doesn’t so much build as accrete details: a descending guitar line, a bass drum’s clomp, a wordlessly sung melody that sounds like Ennio Morricone could have written it. After a while the song crests and then goes into a lull around the same place in the song as in the alternative version. Here, though, rather than going temporarily to a major key for an instrumental solo, the instruments drop out and the voices continue. Suddenly a cappella, the tone becomes strangely distant, almost medieval, as if they were in a mystery play pageant that was now rolling off toward the next farming town. Then, as the drums cue an energetic return, the song shifts course like a poetic turn and suddenly the tempo has changed, a new melody asserts itself, and a lyric celebrates a tautological, almost existential freedom: “you go wherever you go today.” There is this fleetness of movement again and also the fleetingness of it, the evanescence. The song never comes back to the earlier sound. It’s finished.
3. DONKEY BAY and Fleet Foxes
This way of conceptualizing a song structure, full of moments that can happen and not return, reminds me of the enjoyment I felt when I saw the German band, the Notwist, play a live show at the Knitting Factory several years ago.
Although bound by a verse-chorus structure, the Notwist nevertheless featured certain elements that couldn’t be taken for granted. Halfway through their song “Pilot,” I remember them deploying a catchy sample of a record scratch over the transition to the chorus, just once, even though the same transition reoccurred several times. I would listen for it to happen again, and then its absence would remind me of the way that songs don’t necessarily have to feel in control, that they can change. I also think of the Notwist in relation to the Fleet Foxes for another quality of the singing, having to do with articulation and words. After the break-up of the band with the Morrissey acolyte, I played in another group, with a singer who strove to make his voice, like the Notwist, foreign to himself; very perceptively, he celebrated “the sound of English sung by someone who doesn’t necessarily speak English.” He sought this effect of foreignness, of words losing their sense and becoming elusive. For him, this meant singing through a sighing breath, his murmurs enveloped in an enormous blanket of textured instrumentation.
The Fleet Foxes’ way of arriving at this same place is not to hide the vocals in the mix, but rather to prioritize intonation over pronunciation. A lot of this work is done by vowels, allowing a sustained O in a single word like “no” to migrate from an “ah” to an “oh” to an “ooh” over the course of several notes or even a single saturated note becoming its own epic narrative. Breathing through long melodic lines also creates interesting fissures in the sentences, as when Pecknold sings, “Pull the wool over your eyes (breath) for a week or (breath) more,” and the second, syncopated breath orphans and abstracts the end of sentence. A daring ostinato in the beginning of “White Winter Hymnal” in which the words “I was the following the…” is repeated over and over out of context makes the words quiver with uncertainty (“I was following the eye?”) as voices stack up over a tambourine beat before continuing headlong into the sentence.
Often one wonders how the singers arrive at the felicitous garble of their articulations, “benefit” rendered as the rounder, more warbly and countryfied “bannerfidd” or “been” elastically stretched into a nearly three-syllable “bee-yuh-enn” through the magic of confident intonation. What all of these vocal quirks do is to suggest that the song lyrics are less important for what they have to say, what they mean, than how they sound as a preverbal style, a pretext, an ambiance, an aesthetic.
There’s something almost medieval about this approach, like the idea of religion as a body of arcane knowledge whose meaning can be appreciated without necessarily needing to be understood. The old Latin mass, for instance, was likely to sound like nonsense to most parishioners who, illiterate, would have responded more to the emotional weight of the ceremony and the hint of supernatural fantasy filigreeing its edges. Fleet Foxes is decorated with a dense and colorful detail from an Old Master Dutch painting by Peter Breughel the Elder called “The Topsy-Turvy World.”
It depicts a teeming village scene in which each character embodies a proverb—at first it merely seems a record of busy village life but, looking closer, there is a man toppling from an ox onto an ass, another pissing at the moon, a third spread-eagled between two loaves of bread. A jester plays cards, an outhouse hovers over a ditch, and a man stabs a pig in the belly as bears dance on the seashore. Many of the proverbs are defunct; I find myself peering at the image and guessing my own meanings. There’s so much life and so much mystery and you can make of it whatever you want.
Driving with my girlfriend Farrah through the Sierra Nevadas in California over New Year’s, the two of us found ourselves at the edge of a snowstorm in the mountains with no place to stay. Our hotel had cancelled our reservation and night was falling and “NO VACANCY” was blearing in the windows of every roadside motel. Looking for some way not to worry, shivering up into the Donner Pass, we put the Fleet Foxes into the car stereo. As we trundled toward Lake Tahoe, the lively song “Quiet Houses” came on, a simple, stomping beat with intricate guitar playing and a wall-of-sound harmony of voices singing simple declarative sentences repeated over and over, “Lay me down,” “Come to me,” etc. Halfway through, we found ourselves both singing along with the voices, “Donkey bay!” “Donkey bay,” Farrah and I sang, again and again, becoming much less worried about finding a bed somewhere beyond the snow.
Later, safely checked in at a threadbare but comfortable casino hotel on the Nevada border, we looked online and read unsurprisingly that this was not the official lyric (which was “don’t give in”). I stand by the fun of “donkey bay,” though. It’s a reasonable mishearing as mondegreens go, since the Fleet Foxes bury the “t” in “don’t” and soften the “v” in “give.” This strikes me as the right decision, choosing pretty sounds over precise ones. I’ve sometimes heard the argument that pop songs offer first the shallow pleasure of musical transport that is immediately engaging, followed by the deeper pleasure of lyrical content which has to be deciphered. I’ve certainly spent plenty of time figuring out the lyrics in a song I love, for instance, parsing the desert sky imagery in Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia” and its evocatively vague relationship to the love talk on the other side of the turn in the song.
Thinking about what Joni Mitchell was saying was a way of prolonging my instinctive pleasure at the ambiance of the song, of approaching it, structuring it. But it was also, I think, a way of rationalizing it, of rationalizing a feeling that isn’t really rational. I think the Fleet Foxes get this, the way in which words in songs are delivery devices for feelings, feelings that inhere in the vowels and the consonants, in the mechanics of speaking and singing, in the open throat and in the breath moving in and out of the body.
4. BROTHER and Fleet Foxes
One word, though, echoes through the lyrics of many songs of the Fleet Foxes, translating into a kind of makeshift theme for the band, the idea of brotherhood. Pecknold most frequently sings the word “brother” in the possessive as “my brother.” There’s an aspirational, utopian quality to the term and the way people use it, slangily, to declare a common heritage, to turn strangers into an oversized family. It fits into my idea of the cultural space that the Fleet Foxes inhabit, wearing their scruffy Pacific Northwest beards and exuding a kind of smart dude, vegan pacifist warmth. The creative energies of a band can often lead to fractures, and it’s interesting that the Fleet Foxes is kind of a mini Seattle supergroup, with players on drums and bass and keyboards who are graduates of other, older bands. The singer and the lead guitarist are apparently friends from high school not many years ago. According to the press materials online, they are respectively the extrovert and the introvert, having bonded over their funny Scandinavian names and heritage, and over a love of good music that ran in both their families. (An article last summer in the Independent of London points out what a family business Fleet Foxes is, with the singer’s mother doing the band’s accounting, his sister managing, and his brother filming music videos.)
There’s a very endearing clip online of the Fleet Foxes in Austin at the South by Southwest festival, preparing for a show in the gulch behind the clubs on Red River Street. They stand in a half circle, doing vocal warm-ups, making their voices find the right pitch to sync up into chords. Apparently they enact this ritual before every show, a means of fostering connections between the musicians—mystically, one might say, making the band into a band.
The theme of brotherhood is an unusual, generous ground for pop songs, usually more concerned with romance than agapē love. In my favorite track on the Fleet Foxes record, “Blue Ridge Mountains,” the lyrics address the singer’s actual brother Sean, inviting him on an impromptu road trip to Tennessee for carefree adventures. The chorus invokes the spirit of the singer’s Norwegian grandfather (the song was originally named after him) and insists, in an earnest moment where the tempo momentary slows, “I love you, I love you, oh brother of mine.” Then, the music rushes forward with energetic strums as a plucked electric guitar starts picking out a pentatonic melodic hook, joyfully jangly.
Brotherhood is a troubling word at the same time, a word riven with undertones of competitiveness and conflict, Cain and Abel. A brotherhood of mankind sounds idealistic but the language betrays its lack of universality, its exclusionary power to set limits, putting women outside or including them only by denying their specificity. Further, fraternity doesn’t come free, and when someone calls you “brother” on the street, it may be that they want some kind of favor. Bands are funny, unstable entities, prone to clashes over creativity from within and ambivalence from without. What I remember from going on the road with a band is the sense of excitement but also the loneliness of this mitigated brotherhood—adventures faraway from home are also faraway from home. In my experience, when bands I was in broke up, it happened quietly, with a force of entropy heretofore invisible or unacknowledged suddenly revealing itself as critical and real.
Making music, especially music with other people, works against this entropy, the chaos of disordered activity and sound. A favorite musical memory of mine occurred when I visited my friend Ben for his birthday when he was in grad school for orchestra conducting in the Midwest and found myself surrounded by musicians in an echoing alleyway in downtown Ann Arbor, intoning a kind of impromptu, microtonal threnody of sustained “ooohs,” harmonizing with a pack of near-strangers. Our music just started to happen, with no one conducting or talking about it. It was a moment we built together.
One of the most brittle and yet most satisfying thoughts that occur to me when I listen to the Fleet Foxes is that their music represents the possibility of teleology. They seem so syncretic, gathering their sound from such a wide variety of sources: baroque melodies, modal chant harmonies, a hint of the British folk rock of the sixties that was itself a melding of British invasion electric guitars with the English folk ballad tradition, the lush vocals of 1970s California soft rock, the jammy, jangly guitar sound of the 1980s and 1990s, the barny rural experimentalism of recent musicians like Midlake (their album “The Trials of Van Occupanther” is on constant loop in our house these days) or Bonnie “Prince” Billy or Joanna Newsom. It seems as if the Fleet Foxes are incorporating all of this history, blending it together, and coming up with something new that feels like an honest improvement on its predecessors, a bigger, nicer version of the big, nice rock band. Where the British folk rock could get too conservative or corny, the Fleet Foxes comes off inventive and serious. Where soft rock goes sappy or gooey, the Fleet Foxes sound tight, clean and engaged. I hear the Fleet Foxes and I start to think: we can learn from the past, we can ingest it and produce something genuinely new, a step forward, progress! I start to imagine the next generation hearing the Fleet Foxes and finding new angles to improve on this, and folk rock ascending to greater and greater ambitions.
Teleology, maybe like intonation as pertains to pop music, is a dangerous thing to believe in. Teleological stories of art seem built out of exclusions: the critic saying, “this is what I like and nothing else matters.” Or, “turn the page on the past, the future will magically improve.” It’s a kind of arrogance because so much of the time it isn’t true, and stories of progress become distortions of a chaotic record of conflict in which the past is never past and things don’t get better, they just change.
The Fleet Foxes make me want to believe, more than anything then, in belief. One quality of the experience of art is this wonder at numinous virtuosity, the sense that, if one can be surprised by the gorgeousness of one made thing, then maybe the whole universe can be surprising. Of course I know that one person’s progress is another’s disaster, and even my own tastes shift from year to year. The Fleet Foxes are what I’m listening to right now and loving, and five years from now I’ll probably be listening to and loving something else, something not necessarily built on this foundation. Even the Fleet Foxes are already moving on from their success of last year, living apparently abroad in England, across the ocean, listening to old music and writing songs for what’s next. They’re very young—astonishingly young really, to be so capable. But then, we’re all young really, and capable. We just forget, and need to be reminded.
A Thousand Thousand
Doom is happening and stuck with playwright language
The bible unduly stacks. Instead of prices the tags repeat
How the spines are and in every respect it is not a story
Murmured down the well the child fell into, can’t be helped,
More will die in the rescue attempt. Please don’t be offended
To be muse not museum. Because of the noise it would make
I can’t wipe this look off my face so quickly. As a wheel rotates
I lower myself into a darkness in which there are so many
It’s all too easy to filter. Affix names to mysterious objects
While they are sleeping. Boredom means only mustaches
Will appear in situ versus on the outcropping of women artists.
A consequence of illnesses and escapades. Outside the window
I have drawn a picture of a believable inside. Real smoke rises
From a chimney over the stagehands lounge. Other actual joy
I smothered in extra joy, wondering what is motivation.
Does anyone have rope because the thing is I am a spelunker
Of some facility. That too could be fodder for feedstock
In the farmyard. Block, tackle, etcetera. I need everyone
To grapple at the exact same moment with the exact same thing.
Alien this sort of systemic failure I imagined. You don’t know.
You don’t know what it’s like to lose a child. The trouble
Is that people share so many characteristics. The other thing
Is the same thing blown up past all recognition and mangled
By the insane desire to get it perfect inside the cylinder.
But more to the point it is rude, making observations about
The faculty. Of course governance is limited. Of course
The argument makes a wetness. A well can’t very well
Draw on itself and even if it could we’d worry insects
Are such viable alternatives. She is unrecognizable now
Because of all the darknesses she traveled through. To speak
Is to be historical. A form of surrender, going back to x.
The ranger guide doesn’t apply to actual situations. Unclear
What sort of grief follows such cruelty. But what else but.
Jared White grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Brooklyn. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals like Cannibal, Coconut, Fulcrum, Harp & Altar, Inscape, The Modern Review, Sorry 4 Snake, and Verse. He has published essays in Harp & Altar and Open Letters, and a chapbook entitled Yellowcake was included in the recent hand-sewn anthology Narwhal from Cannibal Books. From time to time, he blogs at jaredswhite.blogspot.com and plays the piano.