Six Degrees of Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues

Andy Beta

By Andy Beta

on 05.02.11 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Singing in that unequivocal lonesome tenor of his on the title track to Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold tells of his childhood. "Raised up believing I was somehow unique like a snowflake," he sings; but he soon follows with the converse wish, to be "a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me."

Pecknold's desire to transcend himself has a touch of zeitgeist to it. Similar notions echoed through President Obama's recent speech on community and the social compact, and pulsed beneath the surface of Jonathan Franzen's lauded Freedom. Of what use is personal freedom if there's no greater society beyond the self? Freedom involves others.

So later in that same song, when Pecknold exclaims, "I'm tongue-tied and I can't keep it to myself," his fans — and perhaps his bandmates and his label — are no doubt grateful. From the opening reverberations of "Montezuma" to the furious strumming of "Sim Sala Bim" through the geese-honk rupturing of epic centerpiece "The Shrine / An Argument," Helplessness Blues stuns with its refined yet unfettered beauty. It oozes out of every nook and corner, it rises in every chord change, it radiates in every convergence of the Fleet Foxes' honeyed voices, and it washes over listeners in waves.

A few moments, like the gorgeous, wordless voices that open "The Plains / Bitter Dancer" or the lilting waltz of "Lorelai," will no doubt make an older generation recall the halcyon harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby Stills & Nash, but the band stakes ground firmly in the present. Pastoral as the music sounds, turmoil and doubt courses just under the surface. Rather than the earthy impressionism of its predecessor, Pecknold's words on Helplessness Blues document a creative struggle. He ponders his role as an artist, pines for a "selfless and true love," and seeks throughout to escape the state of "just looking out for me." Meditating on loss and temporality, that even these successes too will pass, Pecknold finds comfort in small moments instead. On the hushed ballad "Blue Spotted Tail," he asks that eternal question: "Why is life made only for to end?" He then hears a voice on the radio and "couldn't help but smile," for a brief moment outside of himself.

The Great Harmonizer

If I Could Only Remember My Name

David Crosby

For decades, one of the finest folk-rock albums of the 1960s was reduced to a punchline. While David Crosby made headlines for crack and gun possession, yacht debauchery, liver transplants, and fathering Melissa Etheridge's baby via artificial insemination, the fact that Crosby had made a powerful album got obscured by its suddenly-ironic title. Though it was slagged upon release by both Robert Christgau and Rolling Stone, Crosby got the last laugh: The album has affected a new generation of folk musicians, from Devendra Banhart to Fleet Foxes. While Crosby gets high with a little help from his friends (the album features contributions from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Graham Nash, Santana, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane) what astounds is how cohesive it all sounds. Songs range from the ecclesiastic harmonizing of "Music is Love" to the brooding, jazz-inflected instrumental "Tamalpais High (At About 3)" to the glowering, skin-bristling paranoia of "What Are Their Names." There's room for both the shambling, ragged rock of "Cowboy Movie" and the resplendent folk of "Traction in the Rain." And the back-half of the album grows more haunting and abstract with each passing song. The languid "Song with No Words (Tree with No Leaves)" slides into the ghostly harmonizing of "Orleans," which in turn gives way to the devastating "I'd Swear There Was Somebody Here." The album was dedicated to Christine Hinton, Crosby's girlfriend, who died in a car crash in 1969. Embracing beauty, mortality and tragedy, this album remains a relic of those times.

Byrds of a Feather

Gene Clark With The Gosdin Brothers + bonus tracks

Gene Clark & The Gosdin Brothers

When founding Byrd Gene Clark flew the coop (the PR spin was that he was afraid of flying) for a solo career, he hooked up with two brothers from Alabama, the bluegrass duo of Vern and Rex Gosdin, two studio mercenaries named Glen Campbell and Leon Russell and, purportedly, an uncredited Van Dyke Parks, with the Byrds' rhythm section holding it all down. That might look cluttered on paper, but the result is some of the sunniest pop of the era, centered around the honeyed harmonies of Clark and the Gosdins. Don't believe it? Go directly to the heart-breaking chorus of "Tried So Hard," one of Clark's finest moments, easily the equal of any of his Byrds' entries. The album was released the same week as the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday, and consequently Clark's solo career never received the attention it deserved. Though the album was as close as Clark would hew to the Byrds' template, it diverges from it in crucial ways. While "Is Yours Is Mine" has the telltale twang, the harmonies come from further south and "Elevator Operator" has more psychedelic heft. Lyrically, Clark aims for the weight of Dylan on opener "Echoes." With the sumptuous orchestral arrangements by Russell, he soars even higher.

A Family Affair

Stories We Could Tell

Everly Brothers

Drawing on the close harmony singing of country acts like the Louvin Brothers and taking them into the fields of pop music, brothers Phil and Don were the most successful duo on the pop charts from 1957-65. Their influence cannot be overestimated; acts like the Beatles, Beach Boys, the Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel took to emulating the Everlys' vocal blueprints for their own successes, making them obsolete in the process. When the Everlys were ushered into the home of Lovin' Spoonful member John Sebastian at the start of the '70s to cut Stories We Could Tell, they found themselves bypassed by the counter-culture yet surrounded by its icons. An entire generation of players they had influenced showed up to pay their respects: Graham Nash, David Crosby, Delaney & Bonnie, Ry Cooder, Clarence White, Warren Zevon and others pitched in for this fine album of country rock. A cascading pedal steel line opens the resplendent "Green River" and the brothers do a strong cover of Rod Stewart's "Mandolin Wind." Having survived successes, they sing with wisdom on knowing numbers like "Christmas Eve Can Kill You" and "I'm Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas," yet also take gentle detours, like the 'cigarettes without labels' aside on "Up in Mabel's Room." An under-appreciated gem.

The Original Rocket Man

The Use Of Ashes

Pearls Before Swine

While the legacy of Tom Rapp's folk group Pearls Before Swine rests on the group's uncanny early albums released on ESP-Disk, it's when the group leapt to a major label and became more conventional sonically that Rapp's songwriting acumen rose to the fore. Nowhere is that more clearly evidenced than on 1970's The Use of Ashes, recorded down in Nashville in the converted garage studio of Wayne Moss with a crack team of country players.

To the ears, though, the album sounds like something recovered from the medieval era. Rapp wrote most of the songs while living in the Netherlands and immersing himself in the art of that period (the cover is an image taken from the Unicorn Tapestries). Rapp's poetic lyrics overwhelm the senses, and the band deploys harpsichords and flutes to elegant effect. The standout "Rocket Man" finds Rapp revisiting his childhood in Cape Canaveral, and its star-bound spaceships are used to frame his own estrangement from his father (the song inspired Bernie Taupin to pen for Elton John a stratospheric hit of their own). On "The Jeweler," Rapp uses the metaphor of polishing gold with ashes to detail a spiritual struggle.

The Other Incredible String Band

Freak-folk godfather Clive Palmer founded the Incredible String Band in the mid '60s before absconding from the group to travel through India and Afghanistan to ingest more of the world's folk music. Upon his return to England, he hooked up with John Bidwell and Mick Bennett to form Clive's Other Band, a woefully neglected British folk outfit who, in the words of fellow musician Ralph McTell, were "three guys living in the middle of nowhere who somehow came up with this magical music." Their rare debut Spirit of Love remains haunting and enchanting some 40 years on, but their second album (bearing the unwieldy title Moyshe McStiff and the Tartan Lancers of the Sacred Heart) is equally stunning, even if it roams further afield. Utilizing sitar, banjo, balalaika, harmonium and something called the dulcitar, COB layer their voices atop the exotic instrumentation to sumptuous effect. Their reach is not just instrumental; the group draws upon tomes as diverse as the Old Testament and the teachings of Rastafarianism (a good number of years before those same teachings cropped up in Jamaican reggae music). The high-pitched vocals of Palmer on "Let It Be You" are heart-rending, matched only by the plaintive ballad "O Bright-Eyed One." A swaying rhythm undergirds "Lion of Judah," and the droning mesmerism of "Solomon's Song," sets to music the racy Biblical ode to one's betrothed.