Seattle folk group Fleet Foxes enjoys a level of popularity and critical acclaim only a handful of current acts can boast. Only two albums into its career, the band has garnered comparisons with such all-time classics as Neil Young and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Its self-titled debut album went to the top of many critics' 2008 best-of lists, and the release this month of its second album, Helplessness Blues, has already made similar impressions. Everyone seems to agree that this is not only an important band, but a very good one. But Fleet Foxes' universal appeal is contrary to the subdued nature of the band's aesthetic. Its music is quiet and unassuming; it doesn't demand to be heard.
An unassuming nature should only help the Foxes, particularly at a time when popularity threatens to cloud listeners' perception of its music. But it didn't necessarily serve the band well during a sold-out show last Thursday at the Fox Theater.
Just before Fleet Foxes took the stage, singer Robin Pecknold came out to check his levels. The crowd cheered, but he waved them off, seemingly annoyed at the attention. When the band came on he offered some mumbled stage banter, but not much. Instead, the Foxes got straight to business, playing a good sampling of its releases thus far. The band doesn't really have "hits," but there are a few songs that stand out in its catalog: "Blue Ridge Mountains," "White Winter Hymnal," and "He Doesn't Know Why" from its first album, "Montezuma," "Grown Ocean," and "Helplessness Blues" from its second.
The band played well, but either because of the acoustics of the venue or the size of the crowd, its sound was washed out and fuzzy. That was especially disappointing considering the ornate orchestrations and subtle musical textures for which it is so well known. One imagines Fleet Foxes playing in a cathedral, or in some mountain glade, at the very least in open air. Here, its painstakingly layered sound was blared through a PA system in order to play to a multitude.
The songs with simpler arrangements translated the best in the house's painfully awkward mixing. But those with more lush arrangements came out as a muddied mess. The band had a touring musician onstage who played a variety of instruments throughout the show —upright bass, flute, guitar, tambourine, even an ill-conceived free-jazz/noise-rock moment on saxophone during one song. The set would've sounded infinitely better with only Pecknold on guitar; the ample talents of the full band here were fairly wasted.
Looking over the heads of the crowd that flocked to the Fox Theater last Thursday night, the minute care so transparent on Fleet Foxes' two excellent albums was hard to absorb. It was Fleet Foxes who played that night, but whether it was Fleet Foxes that I heard is less certain. It felt as though a wall had been thrown up somewhere in the space between Pecknold's guitar and my ears.