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Fleet Foxes - First Collection 2006 – 2009 Music Album Reviews

The box set collects the pure pleasures of Fleet Foxes’ early years including a smattering of B-sides and rarities that reveal the band’s long-running beatific spirit.

Fleet Foxes’ entrée to the greater world—2008’s Sun Giant EP and the self-titled debut from that same year—had an immediate impact on both indie and overground music at large. Critics adored Seattle singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold’s folk-pop project at a time when most of big-ticket indie’s more rocky and rustic fare was coming from the confines of Brooklyn; a considerable fanbase amassed seemingly out of thin air, coffee-shop playlists took to his breezy melodic grandeur like a barista to oat milk, and a “real-music” revival on the Billboard charts roiled on for several years after, with acts ranging from Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers to “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips reaching for the folk-pop brass ring.

The instant success of these records was apparent to nearly everyone—except Pecknold himself. “Those are failures,” Pecknold told Pitchfork about Fleet Foxes’ first two Sub Pop releases, just five months after the release of Fleet Foxes. “I can hear every little thing that I would change.” Speaking alongside then-Fleet Foxes member Josh Tillman—who split from the band soon after the release of the 2011 follow-up Helplessness Blues—he professed admiration for the singularity of future tour mate Joanna Newsom while stating his belief that his band isn’t “anywhere close to where it should be musically...The sooner we can get started on another album the better. I don’t want to take three years off.”

As it turned out, he’d take three anyway; and Helplessness Blues indeed represented a massive leap forward when it came to Pecknold’s talent for musical arrangement and personal, image-rich songwriting. That record and last year’s dark and quixotic Crack-Up are so far removed from the pure pleasures of Fleet Foxes’ earlier outings that they practically sound like the work of a different band. So it makes sense that Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes have been packaged as part of First Collection 2006-2009, which also includes Fleet Foxes’ little-heard debut EP from 2006, a smattering of B-sides and rarities, and an array of photographs capturing the band’s early years.

In fleshing out the project’s late-2000s era, First Collection also serves as a clear delineation between Fleet Foxes’ auspicious beginnings and the fascinating, complicated-sounding music they’ve become known for today. It’s newly rewarding to revisit Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes 10 years after their initial release. Granted, both records have been so perpetually in-the-air that coming into fresh contact with them might seem as simple of an act as intaking oxygen, a qualifier that only further highlights the easy pleasures contained within.

Recorded with clarity and precision by Pacific Northwest production vet Phil Ek, it’s still remarkable how fully-formed the songs on Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes are. The sound of both releases—harmony-drenched and folk-indebted indie, equally capable of sounding sunlit or stormy—are similar enough to consider them a singular document, and together they represent some of the most strikingly tuneful indie of the previous decade. There’s little hint of what was to come in the band’s discography, save for flashes of mercurial moodiness (the multi-suite darkness of “Mykonos,” “Your Protector”’s foreboding woodwinds and wordless outro) that represent Pecknold’s affinity for on-a-dime tonal shifts.

Ek also handled the production of The Fleet Foxes, the ultra-limited-press (only 50 copies, sold locally) 2006 debut EP featuring a pre-Sun Giant lineup of Bryn Lumsden on bass and Nicholas Peterson handling drums/percussion. In a 2008 Rolling Stone profile of the band, Ek told Austin Scaggs that “It was obvious [Pecknold] had talent coming out of his ass” after first hearing the band’s music; although The Fleet Foxes undoubtedly stands in the shadow of its immediate predecessors, it’s easy to hear what caught Ek’s ear in its six songs, more explicitly rock-y while still possessing loads of full-throated charm. Pecknold’s seemingly effortless ability of writing mood-shifting transitions stands out most here; “She Got Dressed” moves from whispered vocals and fingerpicked guitar to full-band swagger, while “In the Hot Hot Rays” bookends a cascading, forceful midsection with gentle drum fills and airy guitar lines.

The B-Sides and Rarities pulls together odds and ends surrounding the band’s inaugural Sub Pop releases, along with a few early demos and sketches. If you’re the type to dig through UK-only B-sides and one-offs, it’s likely you’ve heard some of these songs before: “Isles” and a cover of the traditional British folk song “False Knight on the Road” were B-sides on the respective 7” single releases of “White Winter Hymnal,” and “Mykonos” while the unfinished “White Lace Regretfully” was included on the accompanying 10” to his sister and manager Aja Pecknold’s limited-run The Unified Field literary journal. Also included is Pecknold’s take on American folk traditional “Silver Dagger,” which made the rounds under his since-dormant White Antelope project.

But the raw-material demos that close out B-Sides and Rarities count as the collection’s greatest revelations, affording a work-in-progress intimacy to the creative gestation behind songs that already feel as familiar as the back of one’s hand. The “transition basement sketch” version of Fleet Foxes’ “Ragged Wood” zeroes in on the song’s soaring back half, isolating a few unadorned acoustic guitars and a stripped-down vocal take from Pecknold accompanied by some endearingly wobbly harmonizing; closing sketch “Hot Air” is the briefest track included here—clocking in around three-quarters of a minute—but nonetheless offers an alluring fog of unexplored ambiance.

The “basement demos” of Fleet Foxes’ “He Doesn’t Know Why” and Sun Giant’s “English House” center around rambling placeholder vocals, the former taking on a previously unheard melodic shape and possessing a shaggy looseness that stands opposite to the original’s controlled bursts of melodic steam. It’s practically a new song crafted out of the skeleton of a clear standout from this era, highlighting the inherent value of First Collection 2006-2009 beyond fan service: catching Fleet Foxes’ beatific spirit in a new light can feel just like hearing them for the first time.

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