I remember the first time I heard Fleet Foxes. I was in Austin, Texas, fresh from a trip to the Mecca of all music stores, Waterloo Records. Basking in the glow of my purchases (Dr. Dog and Deerhunter among them), I was especially excited about this new band from Seattle that all my in-the-know friends were raving about. I quickly unwrapped the case (ignoring the lame medieval-looking cover), slipped the CD into the car stereo and waited.
The first song (“Sun It Rises”) was kind of nice. Good harmonies, cool atmospheric vocals … but wait. Something was off. I kept listening. The second track (“White Winter Hymnal”) was a little more pop-oriented, but this nagging thought was bursting to escape my mind and I could hold it in no longer.
Um, doesn’t this guy’s voice sound exactly like Jim James of My Morning Jacket? Or am I crazy? Wait, doesn’t it also sound like that guy from Band of Horses? And don’t these harmonies kind of (exactly) sound like Crosby, Stills & Nash with a dash of Fleetwood Mac? Haven’t I heard this somewhere before?
I listened to the rest of the album, only to be treated with the same medicine over and over. Every dose was easy-to-swallow, inoffensive Sunday morning music. Nothing gripped me.
Hearing Fleet Foxes and subsequently witnessing the massive praise heaped on their debut — the album gained extremely favorably reviews from Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork, Paste Magazine and The Onion’s A.V. Club — was the final straw in a trend that has been irking me for some time. Recently a number of bands have cropped up that are building their careers on the established folk-rock/Americana laurels of their predecessors. These bands (e.g. Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Midlake) are being lauded for a style they didn’t actually create.
Let me get something out of the way: Copying others is natural. It’s inevitable. Musicians are influenced by other musicians, and they attempt to create something that is part their own, part a nod to their heroes. I have nothing against bands that copy someone else’s sound; my favorite bands are all guilty of this. I only become irritated when I hear people praising bands like Fleet Foxes as “innovators” when everything they do has been done before. To me it’s all about the songs, and I hear no quirky personal touch, no innovation, nothing to make me check this band out instead of pulling Crosby, Stills & Nash or Rumours back out of their well-worn sleeves.
Sure, Fleet Foxes’s Robin Pecknold has great pipes beneath his bushy beard. But play “White Winter Hymnal” or “Quiet Houses” and then listen to CSN’s “49 Bye-Byes” or “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” and tell me which ones give you goose bumps. The CSN songs are dripping with melody, charisma and complexity; each song seems to contain half a dozen different songs. Fleet Foxes, on the other hand, accumulate elements of their predecessors and strategically mix them with a tired nature theme for a calculated and recycled sound.
So much time has passed since artists like CSN, The Band and Neil Young that many of today’s listeners don’t remember or even know about them. Let’s face reality: The modern hipster teen will read Pitchfork, see that Fleet Foxes received a 9.0, buy the album, find nothing wrong with it and subsequently will consider it the benchmark of that style. They don’t know any better because they were never exposed to the real innovators. Most people just don’t have the pedigree to see past these trendy indie bands and appreciate the longevity of albums like Music From Big Pink or After the Gold Rush.
The same goes for bands like My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses. Both use the same reverb-soaked high-pitched vocals and loud Crazy Horse-esque guitars at plodding rhythms to establish their sound. Sometimes it seems as if these bands were founded entirely on one edifying listen to “Down by the River.”
Nevertheless, Jim James owes it big to Neil Young. I’m not saying every MMJ song is sub-par to Young and Crazy Horse, but even the best track on 2003’s It Still Moves (which is “Mahgeetah”) could never capture the same stoner-rock perfection of Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Band of Horses also does the whole dual-guitar, mid-tempo rock, nasally vocal thing very well, but it doesn’t impress me. I see what they’re trying to do and I’ll admit at times they serve up a semi-enjoyable tune, but that’s not enough. For the amount of praise and hype that Band of Horses and MMJ receive, it doesn’t compel me to shelve my Neil Young records. I’ve heard it all before, and they just don’t offer comparable talent or personality.
So all of you musicians out there who want instant cred in the folk-revivalist rock world? Simply follow this recipe: One part Whiny Falsetto Vocal, three parts Reverb or Massive Echo Chamber, three parts Harmony, one part Sensitive Nature-themed Band Name, one part Crazy Horse Guitar Attack and three parts Scraggly Neck Beard …
And we’ll see you at Bonnaroo!