The first time I heard “Boots of Spanish Leather,” it was as if all of the oxygen had been drained from the room, suddenly replaced with the wavering golden longing of this one song. Only it wasn’t Dylan singing, it was my 14 year-old brother Robin, belting out these heart-worn lyrics as the afternoon spring sunlight streamed through rain-stained windows, illuminating a thousand dust flecks in my cluttered college apartment. Each verse further eclipsed any hint of a self-conscious adolescent, as his fingers moved nimbly over the fretboard. It was the first of many songs I’d hear him master in the short time after our father gave us both acoustic guitars.
But while I fumbled awkwardly through “Heart of Gold” and “Blackbird,” Robin climbed quickly skyward, up past the tree line, where the air was thin, and the expanse before him unfolded, unobstructed. It wasn’t long before he was crafting original material of his own, forsaking most other responsibilities in favor of hunkering down with his Martin and his best friend Skye Skjelset.
As most best friends are, Skye was along for the journey, picking up guitar around the same time, and the two—forsaking their sterile suburban surroundings just outside Seattle—ate lunch together in the science room, did their best to ignore high school, and immersed themselves in the music collections of their folks and the private world of songwriting in their basements.
“We grew up listening to the music of our parents,” Robin notes, “The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, The Zombies, Joni Mitchell, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Love, Marvin Gaye, Bach, Crosby Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, and every other perennial ‘60s band you’d expect to find in the record collections of baby boomers.” (One of us is named after a Steely Dan record, for Christ’s sake…)
It wasn’t until a few years later though, in 2006, when the boys emerged, and began shaking out some of the basement-born tunes live as Fleet Foxes. They created new songs, scrapped the old, then created more and scrapped them too, eventually finding a few that fit just about right, along with some new friends who emerged from Seattle’s musical woodwork: keyboardist Casey Westcott (Seldom), drummer Nick Peterson (Headphones, Pedro the Lion) and later, bassist Christian Wargo (Crystal Skulls). From the Fox den, with the help of credit cards, minimum wages, tip money, friends and family, the boys worked, crafting their first demo, and subsequently the Sun Giant EP and this debut full-length album, with family friend (and Pecknold childhood hero) Phil Ek manning the rudder.
As far as the music? Robin puts it best: “We aim to be adventurous and true to ourselves and to enjoy our time together—the music we make is a reflection of our instincts. To me, the most enjoyable thing in the world is to sing harmony with people, so we do that a bunch. We love acoustic guitars, electric guitars, big rolling tom drums, mandolins, dulcimers, bass guitars, bass pedals, organs, pianos, kotos, and most of all harmony and melody. We’ve succeeded for ourselves if we’ve made a song where every instrument is doing something interesting and melodic. We try to draw from the traditions of folk music, pop, choral music and gospel, baroque psychedelic, sacred harp singing, West Coast music, traditional music from Ireland to Japan, and film scores, and are inspired by the music of our friends and contemporaries in the Seattle music family.”
Recorded prior to Sun Giant, Fleet Foxes and the EP form a cohesive unit, cut from the same harmonious cloth, sturdily woven from shimmering strands pulled from sources that range from the natural world and familial bonds to bygone loves and stone cold graves. Fleet Foxes flows from a trickle of slowly melting snow to meandering river, rushing rapids, then back again. The jangly warmth of album opener “Sun It Rises,” is brought to life with multi-part harmonies that spread across some distant or not so distant terrain, slowly ascending higher to reveal hilltop crescendos, bleeding through to valleys and melting over plains before giving way to “White Winter Hymnal”’s cyclical prose, rolling rhythms and stark comparisons of blood on snow to strawberries in summertime. Haunting shadows and unsettled melodies dance with demons in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” the spare acoustic guitar of “Oliver James” is broken with gentle taps on the Martin’s hollow body, while soaring a cappella vocals evoke the dawn of a new life, cloaked in whispers from generations past.
“All we strove for with this record was to make something that was an honest reflection of who we are, citizens of the western United States who love all kinds of music and above all else love singing… This record is like our first steps and like any newborn, we made mistakes and made discoveries and in the process better found out who we are! That is what the record represents to me when I hear it now—the process we went through to find ourselves the first time. We cannot wait to continue making records, to explore all there is to explore in this vast musical landscape and test ourselves in new ways through song.”
Fleet Foxes’ sound is in constant motion—an ever-evolving, growing and changing, living thing, climbing higher and higher to reach an illusory pinnacle in the clouds that grows more elusive with each inch of elevation gained.