There are a handful of songs in the middle of this fourth album from Fleet Foxes that feel very much in sync with early expectations created by the folky, rural Americana, melody focused, harmony-rich albums, their ’08 self-title debut and 2011’s Helplessness Blues. “A Long Way Past the Past” relies on gently played guitars to support that stack of vocal harmonies which invariable call to mind either The Beach Boys or Crosby, Stills & Nash, and while there’s an appearance by the Westerlies horn section, they lay down a flowing bed over which the guitars and vocals blend. The brief “For a Week Or Two” is a nearly a cappella hymn to a rural retreat, with mild percussion and the warm hum of piano chords, maybe a lilting banjo, and the chirping of birds at the end. There’s a kicking drum beat that pushes “Maestranza,” where the guitars and pianos build toward a nice crescendo, while main singer/songwriter, Robin Pecknold sings the lead melody without that wash of harmonies.
In “Young Man’s Game,” explores his relationship with the industry that’s his bread and butter, wondering if might be too old for the pop/rock world. His poetic sensibility may be a disadvantage, when he sings “I could worry through each night/Find something unique to say/I could pass as erudite/But it’s a young man’s game” and “Not to straight or too clean/Like your borrowed blue bike/I’ve been a rolling antique/For all my life.” Well, if you’re using words like “erudite,” you might be over-thinking it a bit.
By this point, the secret is out of the bag that Pecknold is Fleet Foxes, he writes the music, sings most of the harmonies on the records, devises and arranges all the instrumental sections. Here on “Shore,” Pecknold’s touring bandmates – Skyler Skjelset, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, Morgan Henderson, and touring drummer Matt Barrick – don’t even appear on the recording. Pecknold’s one consistent collaborator over the course of this album is Beatriz Artola, the recording engineer and co-producer. The album begins with “Wading In Waist-High Water,” Pecknold touches base with that early Fleet Foxes sound, again with a simple melody song over strummed guitar chords, but we quickly get a hint of what’s to come when a children’s choir and that horn section build the song out, suggesting broader dimensions to be explored. In the big pop sounding “Sunblind,” which finds Pecknold swimming in the “Warm American Water” of his musical influences, where he drops names like John Prine, Jeff Buckley, Richard Swift, Elliott Smith, Otis Redding and more.
In celebrating the enduring music by these artists, some who struggled in life, Pecknold hoped to infuse his own music on this album with the vibrant spirit that celebrates the gifts of life while our nation is still in the midst of this pandemic and its ever-rising death tolls. “Can I Believe You” and “Jara” exhibit the up-tempo bright big production tones that dominate on “Shore,” while “Featherweight” is another that harkens back to Pecknold’s folk roots with some lovely classical guitar playing by Michael Bloch.
Released in digital form on the exact moment of the Autumnal Equinox, to mark the changing seasons, Shore will be released for fans of physical versions in February. The album’s final four of the albums’ 15 tracks, paint the best portrait of Pecknold’s vision going forward. All four feature those Westerlies’ horns – Riley Mulherker and Chloe Rowlands on trumpets, Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombones – which give “Going-to-the-Sun Road” a strong jazz vibe which suits Pecknold’s vocals nicely. “Thymia” finds Pecknold playing a familiar finger picked guitar, again with those stacks of vocal harmonies of old. On “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman” the horns add an intensity, while Pecknold gets some guitar support from Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear. The title track ballad serves as a postlude, much the way “Wading In Waist-High Water” introduced the album, Pecknold still remembering Prine and others whose music put the bug in Pecknold to do this thing, and now he’s holding on to that.
It will matter little whether Fleet Foxes continue as a band or if Pecknold just does the obvious and goes solo, as the results are likely to remain the same. While 2017’s Crack-Up seemed to suggest a lack of clarity how to push forward in new directions and still hold the center of the Fleet Foxes sound close. On Shore, Pecknold together with Artola has found a creative grounding that seems to serve the singers strengths, while suggesting fresh possibilities. The 15 tracks here offer the best of both worlds.
Key Tracks: “Sunblind” / “Can I Believe You” / “Young Man’s Game”
Artists With Similar Fire: Iron & Wine / Bon Iver / Calexico
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb