Can’t help feeling disappointed by Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness blues, but then they were always going to struggle to top the melodic and harmonic beauty of their debut and the Sun giant EP, because those were perfect and they arrived as if out of nowhere. What’s hard to take is the regression: the lead vocal and the songs sound if anything less mature. Robin Pecknold has somehow contrived to become a younger man with a thinner voice and in narrowing his lyrics to the personal, they have inevitably lost the timeless feel that the first set of songs possessed. In fact these new ones sound whiney and off-putting. You can’t help but want him to get over himself, a feeling not diminished by reading interviews around the time of release. Still, I can’t claim to have been any less earnest, any less of a monomaniac when I was his age. If I’d tried to write lyrics then they’d have been whinier still.
Fair play to Robin though in acknowledging his debts and influences when compiling an Uncut cover mount CD earlier this year, for as well as picking the Clientele’s ‘Since K got over me’, he has led me to discover Nic Jones and specifically his Penguin eggs LP. Is it overstating the case to imagine that Nic might have been one of those who kept English folk alive through the musical revolutions of the late seventies and early eighties? His voice is sturdy if unspectacular, but his guitar-playing is rhythmically intricate and gave him the ability to freshen up any song that he might find up Cecil Sharp’s sleeve. On Penguin eggs I particularly like the song Robin Pecknold chose, ‘Courting is a pleasure’, ‘Canadee-i-o’, which Bob Dylan subsequently performed in his own inimitable style on Good as I been to you, and ‘The humpback whale’, which marries idiomatic folk song to timelessly expressive acoustic guitar.
Thanks to his tendency to write songs featuring birds, I’ve finally got my head round Bill Callahan. His voice is even sturdier than Nic Jones’, but it has in it qualities of the artist as opposed to the interpreter – experience, weariness and an almost newborn vulnerability all mixed up. You could take Sometimes I wish we were an eagle and Apocalypse as a pair; and it’s tempting to think of the former as a break-up record and the latter – despite its title – as something of a return to life. On ‘Riding for the feeling’ and ‘One fine morning’, Bill seems to be talking about his personal apocalypse in the past tense, viewed in retrospect; which perhaps makes the earlier album the epicentre of the destructive event. That’s idle speculation though (a blogger’s stock in trade). Bill’s themes are often simple – freedom, America, loss, settling down – but he tackles them with a complexity and an ambivalence which lets the listener see things afresh:
To belong to being derided for things I don’t believe in / And lauded for things I did not do / If this is what it means to be free / Then I’m free / And I belong to the free / And the free / They belong to me – ‘Free’s’
And the music, often sparse and understated, always suits the themes. If I had to choose between the two, I’d go for Sometimes I wish we were an eagle, because it has so much in it, lyrically, musically, and that quality of his voice is at its best.