05/03/2011 12:35 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2011

Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes debuted with such a spectacular grasp of Americana that the band seemed to hail from indeterminate time and space -- they could've come from the Great North Woods, the Mississippi Delta, the Blue Ridge Mountains -- when in fact they were from outside Seattle. Sure they garnered knee-jerk reactions to contemporaries like My Morning Jacket or Band of Horses but these were more to do with the mellifluously clear voice Robin Pecknold shares with Jim James or Ben Bridwell than anything else. Fleet Foxes have the sort of condensed sound that triggers a cascade of aural reminders without even approaching a facsimile of their influences.

They distill the history of American music with genre-busting focus. Their sound reminds me of a cake, or some other concoction where the individual components are apparent, yet indivisible from the larger whole. Rather than being followers of the "parfait" model -- a layer of woodsy folk here, a stratum of AM rock there, a dusting of sunny pop, a patina of Appalachian harmonies --Fleet Foxes are masters of synthesis. On their self-titled debut, the band channeled this energy into taught, arrangements that sailed forth beneath this tension; a sort of precise meandering. On Helplessness Blues they roam free, osmosing into extended jams, tempo shifts, drifting into open territories under a slack mainsail.

My mother called Fleet Foxes "Fleetwood Foxes" at a Passover dinner not too long ago. This mispronunciation actually speaks volumes about the band, beyond the similarities to Fleetwood Mac, which are even more apparent on Helplessness Blues. The mere mention of Fleet Foxes at a Seder by my (admittedly hip) mother proves their demographic is much larger than most bearded, guitar-toting bands. Like Mumford & Sons (this is from a pure demographic standpoint) Fleet Foxes make music that is easily digestible for the older set while still being hip with the kids. I listen to them, my mom listens to them, and I'm willing to bet my grandmother would be down as well. Robin Pecknold is among the first to admit that his drive to surpass the first album burdened him immensely; it dogged all aspects of his life, from his relationships to the recording sessions.

The opening lyrics of "Montezuma" announce the tone of the album from the start: "So now I am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/now what does that say about me?" The introspection in these lines surpasses almost any Fleet Foxes lyric to date in elegance and economy. Whereas his earlier lyrics were beautiful snapshots of lush imagery, here he crafts detailed narratives, no less vivid and perhaps more compelling for their storytelling nature. This is a more insular record, the feeling here is the kind one only gets when locked in a deep soul-search.

Accordingly, Pecknold stands out in front of the band a little more. On "Lorelai" (which sounds like a relative of "Norwegian Wood" and "4th Time Around") his plaintive voice is backed by a meandering guitar; the harmonies that once burst forth are dialed back, and the drums beat out a more languid beat. His voice stands confidently in the mix as he sings of a failed relationship.

For all of Pecknold's metaphysical introspection, Helplessness Blues shows the band looking beyond the purview of American music to foreign shores. Song titles like "Blue Ridge Mountains" or "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" give way to the nomadic "Bedouin Dress" and Indian tinged harmonies on "Sim Sala Bim" while Pecknold sings of adventures from "Montezuma to Tripoli." The contemplative sprawl of Helplessness Blues is maybe best captured by the title track, whose straightforward narrative is balanced by an agile band that allows their instruments to bend and breath. Though Pecknold's songwriting shows a significantly expanded range, he is not the only one to have grown. The rest of the band knows when to flex their muscle and when to sit back. The result is a broad record, one that expounds upon life's biggest questions with meditative focus.