Fleet Foxes: “Ragged Wood” (Fleet Foxes, 2008)
I was in Chicago for the Pitchfork Festival this past weekend, which, honestly, as someone who writes for the site, is as much about meeting and seeing the people I work with as it is about watching bands. It’s been interesting over the years to see how we’ve all changed from year to year and where our lives have taken us. It’s also good to know that the people you’ve built these long-distance relationships with are all incredibly nice in person.
The performance that stuck with me most was Fleet Foxes’ Saturday night headlining set. I think they’re a truly great band. Back in 2008, when they won our albums poll, I remember a lot of people coming out of the woodwork to say they’re nothing special.
It’s fine not to like the band, but these people are wrong. The common knock on them—“folk with beards and harmonies, whatever”—seems to miss everything that’s special about them. First of all, they can really sing. All of them. Their harmonies are rich and complex—it’s not something you hear often. Most of what we call harmonies in our shorthand is actually just two people singing the same thing in unison.
These guys are usually singing four or five different parts, or breaking into sections to sing opposing lines. And they can do it live. That alone sets them apart. Someone I talked to this weekend marveled at the way Robin Pecknold seems to have a reverb unit built right into his throat.
But they’re also good songwriters with an interesting sense of structure. “Ragged Wood” was originally supposed to be the title track of the band’s first album, but they switched to self-titled just before the release. It remains a sprawling and unpredictable suite, though, passing through three movements that let the band touch on all of its strengths.
You get the shuffling, up-tempo first section, the pretty, quiet middle and the ascendant coda with the huge harmonies and chiming guitars. The instrumental texture changes, too, which is something these guys don’t get enough credit for. They’re great at combining sounds and changing the combinations to keep your ear engaged.
It’s academic-sounding, but these to me are the qualities of a band that thinks about sound and works to make its music more interesting and nuanced. It’s the difference between great bands and decent bands. On Saturday, Fleet Foxes were great.