Album Review: Fleet Foxes – Shore

In the week before the autumn equinox of this strange year, I was in the small fishing town of Beer in Devon, England, spending the first week with my family and away from stagnant city air since lockdown began in March. I was born in the Midlands, with a hundred miles of industrial towns between us and the sea to the east and the entire country of Wales to the west: in Beer I was reminded of the enigma of a sea I was used to seeing rarely; the oddity of nothing on horizon, the refreshing crispness of sea-salt and offensive crispness of the wind. The waves of an encroaching tide don’t ever lose their novelty; we spent each evening watching the cusped hands of the sea fold the pebbled beach back over itself. (Also, most of the pubs were shut).

It’s a shame that the Fleet Foxes missed me by one week; it would have been perfect to hear their fourth album there, rather than lying in Clissold Park in central London with an accidentally-purchased alcohol-free beer and the sight of some teens nicking a park-keeper’s buggy for accompaniment. The music took me back to the water regardless. Titled Shore, and with a gorgeous photograph by Hrisohi Hamaya as it’s cover, it’s an album which sort of shimmers – like the sea when the sun hits it just right – propelled by waves of intricate instrumentation and pockmarked by birdsong and a kind of delicate tonality indebted to Phillip Glass.

Eschewing the arbitrary industry-standard Friday release-date, the album was dropped on Tuesday September 22nd, the day of the autumn equinox, and it’s easy to see why: Shore is refreshing in a way not unlike the new season. While 2017’s Crack-Up was a literary and often-beautiful release, it was a complicated listen by design, and that is not the case for Shore. With four more songs but exactly the same run-time, this collection is direct, the vast scope of the previous release traded in for a set of sharp songs, written solely by Pecknold before and during the pandemic. The album is bright and colourful, with sweetness brought by moments like the Laurie Anderson-aping scales which open “Jara”, or the dainty organ which dances around “Featherweight”.

The other contributor to the album’s freshness comes from a theme of humility which runs through the music. The band was once home to folk-rock’s most entertaining narcissist, but Pecknold takes a different tact: opening song “Wading In Waist-High Water” is sung entirely by Uwade Akhere, a 19 year old student from Oxford who Pecknold discovered when she posted a cover of one of his songs to YouTube. The second song “Sunblind” is dedicated entirely to his influences, describing the liberating feeling of accepting your work to be eternally in the shadow of your heroes: “And in your rarified air I feel sunblind / I’m looking up at you there high in my mind / Only way that I made it for a long time / But I’m loud and alive, singing you all night”. Indeed Pecknold claims to have only been able to make the album by making playlists filled with Arthur Russell, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Michael Nau, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and more and simply bathing in them, learning from their use of simplicity and warmth. You can certainly hear Sam Cooke in the sweet melancholy of “A Long Way Past The Past”, and you can literally hear Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys’ voice on “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman”, a sample from behind the boards of Pet Sounds.

With these nerdy little references to music history and song titles Pecknold himself admits he isn’t clear on, the Fleet Foxes’ music retains an air of sophistication. For those of us of a certain age, the sound of orchestral, acoustic guitar-thrashing folk acts like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers became commonplace, so these songs are timely reminders that, although Fleet Foxes deploy a similar sound, they are the opposite of conservative. Paying homage to the propulsive funk of Stevie Wonder with the staples of 70s folk on “Maestranza” is actually pretty weird, as is the climax of “Quiet Air / Gioia”, a shapeshifting climate-change rager which sees Pecknold hollering call and response vocals decrying “oh devil walk by / I never wanna die, I never wanna die” over some lolloping scales in a way which sounds more like The Knife than Crosby, Stills & Nash, or whoever.

Even though these songs are more direct than their predecessors, it’s hard to call fans who have called this clearer direction “too pop-y” anything other than massive hipsters. Despite their melodiousness, Shore’s ear-worms are little vocal inflections and soaring instrumentation, not bar-room choruses. Sometimes the denseness of the recordings are actually too much: but thankfully “For A Week Or Two” and “I’m Not My Season” redress the balance with patient tempos, the latter being perhaps my favourite cut off the record; an elegant and mournful slice of winter poetry which paints depression as a monolithic state, unchanged by sunshine or rain.

Shore then is the sort of decluttering which can feel anti-climatic in the wake of Crack-Up’s complexities, but the approach is a necessary one. Marvin Gaye followed the densely political What’s Going On with the simply horny Let’s Get It On, and Kendrick Lamar released the hit-yielding DAMN in the wake of To Pimp A Butterfly. Sometimes, when you release a 75 minute jazz epic tied together by performance poetry, there’s really nowhere else to go. Shore certainly seems to be a similar response to the ornate and elusive Crack-Up, with Pecknold even commenting on the physical toll of crafting such a dense work: “living for that long inside Crack-Up’s dense compositions, and touring that relentlessly, left me in a quandary: I didn’t want to take another long break from music… but I needed to find a new, brighter way of making songs if I was going to go straight into something large and ambitious again”.

By releasing on the equinox, the Fleet Foxes owned their lane in a way more bands should. Much is made of the band being ‘autumnal’, but it’s normally take as given without much rumination on what that actually means. For me it’s about balance: Pecknold’s powerful voice lends a touch of melancholy to bright instrumentals which make a rock band sound like an orchestra, and likewise autumn is a in-between period in our planet’s slingshot around the sun. It helps that their last two albums were about transitions too: Helplessness Blues was a classic of the genre in fact – about the shift from adolescence into adulthood – and Crack-Up was about finding footing in this new state of being. Shore is about arrival. Its songs are bold, bright and direct: gone is the tentativeness of their third album’s reticent moments of tense quiet and lyrically, Pecknold seems to have found a firm sense of direction here: stood facing the sea, looking out.

Liam Inscoe – Jones

Album Review: Maze and Lindholm – A River Flowing Home to the Sea

It’s hard to comprehend that one of the creators of this patient and meditative release is also half of the bombastic noise and techno duo Orphan Swords, but that’s who P.Maze is; working for the second time with Brussels-based composer and double-bass player Otto Lindholm. Together they  released 2018’s Where The Wolf Has Been Seen, an enigmatic record torn between ambience and urban anxiety. 

The sounds of that LP evoked the city, and it’s no surprise, recorded as it was in a 12 meter-square room in the middle of one, and likewise their second album reflects where it too was made, in the an “old house in the countryside… with a large window overlooking the trees”. The resultant music peruses just half of the Where The Wolf…’s multitudes, committing itself to slowly unravelling ambience completely…  Continue reading “Album Review: Maze and Lindholm – A River Flowing Home to the Sea”

Album Review: Westerman – Your Hero Is Not Dead

Some styles are harder to succeed in than others; virtuosity, sweeping conceptuality; these are hard to master because they demand skills which are almost unobtainable. The laidback, silver New Wave of 26 year old Londoner Will Westerman’s sound is hardly revolutionary: but his chosen style comes with its own set of dilemmas. There are hints of Peter Gabriel, 10cc and Beach House to a washed-out style which has captured hundred bedroom outfits over the past decade, and it’s precisely this saturated market which makes Westerman’s debut so satisfying. Stare through a dozen supporting acts of cardigan wearing, feet-staring dream-pop bands and it’s easy to forget that this ethereal sound can be enchanting rather than bewitchingly dull, and he strikes that chord immediately. 

The approach of the record is slow and cerebral, but among the sounds Westerman plays with producer Nathan Jenkins are sticky choruses and instrumentation which builds into graceful cacophonies; ornate in construction but relaxed in execution. Westerman’s voice is punctuated by circular guitar playing and filled with 21st century touches in the form of thunderous kick drums, loose hi-hats and looped guitar vamps. Songs like “Big Nothing Glow” are intensely detailed but remain elastic, bathed in shimmering synths and thick reverb which keeps the tracks loose and compelling. There are guitar solos too: lots of them.

YHIND Image Red 1 cred Bex Day

With references to architecture and a bauhaus aesthetic, it’s an album which would have fit in the canon of early 80s British New Wave alongside Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and co., but Westerman’s concerns are very 2020. Lead single “Blue Comanche” is one of the album’s most luscious, but it’s words sting with anxiety over the ever-expanding harm of environmental loss, with references to acorns and cyborgs abound. It’s hard to imagine this single staying far from the top of the singles charts in 1981, boasting a staunch commitment to whirring synths and call-and-repeat vocals. 

Westerman can be emotionally distant – these are erudite songs about grey areas, discourse and modernisation – but they also possess a rare nuance, such as on “The Line”, which wonders aloud where “the line is”. The context is left open – it could refer to political discourse or a row between lovers – but that’s where the poignancy comes from. And somehow the song still slaps: the ear-worm chorus soaring over a fog of synths and sharp guitar licks. Despite their sibylline character, others tracks express concrete affirmation, like the uptempo “Think I’ll Stay”, a reflection on chronic illness which ends with the proclamation: “don’t know how I got here / but now that I am I think I’ll stay”.

This debut album isn’t freewheeling and it isn’t revolutionary, instead it’s a remarkably precocious mastery of a style which has for too long being lost in the fog of it’s own introspection. Will Westerman meets that with directness, precision and a healthy dose of magic. 

Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones.

Album Review: Childish Gambino – 3.15.2020

On his FX show Atlanta, Donald Glover and company have mastered the art of wrapping the political in a veil of surreal comedy and a distinct lack of concern. It’s a show where little happens, and yet says more about race and class in America than a whole month of The Daily Show. Take the skit about a black teenager who wants to transition into “a 35 year old white man” or the quite horrific season two scene where a frat boy tries to impress rapper Paperboi by eulogising Pimp C as “one of the last true prophets” while smoking a joint in front of a confederate flag.

When asked about white people watching the show Glover said to The New Yorker that “I want them to really experience racism, to really feel what it’s like to be black in America… the characters aren’t smoking weed all the time because it’s cool but because they have P.T.S.D.—every black person does. It’s scary to be at the bottom, yelling up out of the hole, and all they shout down is ‘Keep digging! We’ll reach God soon!”.

atlanta

I mention all of this before even arriving at Glover’s new album as Childish Gambino because this is the new mould of his music too. Just like there is no scene in Atlanta where Earn turns to the camera to eulogise about race in America, there are no protest songs on 3.15.2020, and nor do I think he wanted these songs to be more than jams if the listener didn’t want them to be – but this music is also very much a product of the world as it stands in 2020. Continue reading “Album Review: Childish Gambino – 3.15.2020”

Album Review: Against All Logic: 2017 – 2019

The latest in a series of albums with the most satisfyingly unambiguous titles in music, 2017-2019 is the second LP under the Against All Logic moniker of New York producer Nicolas Jaar. The first, 2012-2017, was taken perhaps too seriously. Jaar, a purveyor of intricate and conceptual IDM, clarified that each song was produced in only 45 minutes and so its reception may have taken him by surprise. After all, he had just released a trilogy of meticulous records which covered ground as wide as soundtrack and autobiography and so his AAL collection – which he didn’t even advertise – was perhaps meant as a footnote for diehard fans. An enigmatic talent, Jaar is used to doing the surprising, and that is perhaps an explanation for the music we have here. With an awareness that the world is watching, Against All Logic now means something entirely different. Continue reading “Album Review: Against All Logic: 2017 – 2019”