By Alec Warkentin
A six year absence in any genre, especially one that’s become as verbose and commercialized as turn-of-the-decade indie-folk, is generally a dangerous endeavor.
No group may know this better than Fleet Foxes, pioneers of the last wave of that very hybrid, who unfortunately had to witness their distinct style of harmonious and densely packed choral indie be curdled by near-endless imitators.
But Crack-Up, their latest release, shrugs off the notion that indie-folk is nothing but a repetitive drumbeat and insipid sing-along turn-of-phrase, instead offering an album that revisits the lush acoustic soundscapes and brimming vocal style that has always put Fleet Foxes a cut above.
Ditching any conventional radio-ready joints, album opener and first single “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” offers a brimming compilation of orchestral swoons and guitar-driven urgency. From there, the album leads into sister-tracks “Cassius, -“ and “- Naiads, Cassadies.” The former showcases the archetypal rising swell of Fleet Foxes’ vocal harmonies and the latter descends into an almost-bluesy hymnal of keys and guitar.
While neither of these tracks reinvent the Fleet Foxes formula, they are brimming with life as though shuddering off the years away down to minute intricacies that aren’t immediately apparent.
They act as a build-up, almost, for “Kept Woman,” the album’s first non-single standout. It finds vocalist Robin Pecknold ruminating against a simple and hypnotic turn of piano keys.
“Anna, you’re lost in a shadow there/ Cinder and smoke hanging in the air/ Oh, and I know you’ll be bolder than me/ I was high, I was unaware,” Pecknold croons in the chorus. It’s a simple and familiar story, but the minor inflection on the words “cinder and smoke” represent the subtleties in which Fleet Foxes thrive.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Crack-Up is how each track is rhythmically and melodically dense, but is never once gaudy or overwrought in the way that betrays the telltale sheen of overproduction.
“Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is another such example of how Fleet Foxes have stepped up to reclaim the crown. At almost nine minutes, the album’s centrepiece and longest track interpolates a masterful use of violins, winding vocal acrobatics, and start-stop rhythm before tailing off into a flurry of fluttering strings. It carries with it a brief shade of the works of Joanna Newsom, though not nearly as complex.
“If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” is another album standout, simple and brief with it’s title serving as the chorus plaintively proclaimed by Pecknold. It’s shuddering, but it also marks perhaps the turning point for Crack-Up, an album that’s undoubtedly front-heavy.
“Mearcstapa,” “On Another Ocean (January/June)” and “Fool’s Errand,” for all their orchestral worth, never quite reach the highs of the album’s first few tracks and while they share the same spirit, they aren’t necessarily attention-grasping.
The same can be said for the downtempo and echoing “I Should See Memphis,” a track that can unfortunately be construed as Crack-Up’s nadir to the rest of the albums lustful and jubilant zenith.
Amidst wistful guitar strums, Pecknold’s voice reverberates dismally, and while it keeps with the formula of minor instrumental inflections contributing to the overall oeuvre of Crack-Up it sadly feels out of place in an album that revels in its subtle density.
The placement of the penultimate “I Should See Memphis” may also be considered a misstep for the album, with even the last-hurrah atmosphere of closer and title track “Crack-Up” being unable to bring the piece back to the heights of its beginnings.
However, apart from a meandering second half, the only real gripe with Crack-Up stems from a problem within the structure of the new indie/folk movement itself, being that many have the formula down so well that there never seems a need for more than a little variation.
While Fleet Foxes have undoubtedly done something to remedy this, adding vibrant orchestrals to their well-known vocal filigree, the issue with albums like Crack-Up is that they’re great pieces in a genre that is suffering from exhaustion.
Arguably peaking at around the time Fleet Foxes released their last acclaimed album Helplessness Blues in 2011, the movement unfortunately and regretfully umbrella’d as “indie” is now as commonplace as anything, the ruminating and contemplative nature of its forebearers wilfully forgotten.
Call it a bitter irony that the inspiration drawn from groups like Fleet Foxes on imitators would result in an oversaturation of a subculture of music that seemed oh-so-bright and refreshing not even a decade ago.
Either way, Crack-Up bristles with the same subtle grandiosity found in most of Fleet Foxes work, and as if preserved in amber for these six long years, their sound remains perfectly preserved and contented to live amongst the nuances that indie-folk used to encompass.Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes, Nonesuch