12

Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

Crack-Up, the third LP from famed Seattle indie folk act Fleet Foxes, convincingly cements the group’s place in the “3 for 3 club”.  The “3 for 3 club” is a term I made up to describe artists whose first three studio albums have all been very very good.  The reasoning is that while making one great album is hard, and two doubly so, going three for three signifies that you really really know what you’re doing.  You didn’t get lucky and you didn’t burn out, and you’re probably here to stay.  (Other recent indie rock inductees to this club would include Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, Father John Misty and Tame Impala.)  But I don’t think there was ever any doubt that Robin Pecknold and co. were the real deal – I mean just listen to those harmonies on the chorus of “Helplessness Blues“.  The question, rather, was in what direction would the group push?  Would they move to more ambient, conceptual music?  Would they add layers of synths and other electronics, as bands are notoriously known to do on LP3?  Would they abandon their heavy folk aesthetic?  The answer is twofold; first, Fleet Foxes got really good at writing and arranging enormous, overwhelming and beautiful Fleet Foxes songs, and second, Pecknold got far more socially conscious and political as a lyricist.

Everyone is making Crack-Up out to be this soul searching depression record for Pecknold, citing his extended absence from the project, his return to school at Columbia, the album’s opening lyric of “I’m all that I need / and I’ll be til I’m through,” but Crack-Up is far more outward looking than any previous Fleet Foxes material.  Recently, Pecknold himself responded to a negative review of the record with a wall of passive aggressive text that’s generally in poor taste save for this hilarious quote – “If some of the lyrics are more imagistic than explicit, they’re still more engaged in the present world than anything on our first album, where the lyrics were just pure RPG fantasy.”  Correct!  After nearly a decade, Pecknold has successfully traded “I was following the pack all swallowed in their coats” for “Song of masses, passing outside / All inciting the fifth of July / When guns for hire open fire”, from standout Cassius, –, a song about Pecknold’s engagement in the protests surrounding the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Cassius here refers to the recently deceased Muhammed Ali, who shows up again in “I Should See Memphis”.

Both “-Naiads, Cassadies” and “Kept Woman” concern themselves with gender dynamics and feminism, the former addressing the perceived helplessness and delicacy of women by comparing them instead to elemental forces; “Fire can’t doubt its heat / Water can’t doubt its power / You’re not adrift, you’re not a gift, you know you’re not a flower”.  The second half’s “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” acts as a calm and reassuring voice following the election of Trump – “How could it all fall in one day?  Were we too sure of the sun?  If you need to, keep time on me”.  The election is again referenced with optimistic sentiment on “Fool’s Errand”, where Pecknold sings to a marching beat “Blind love couldn’t win / As the facts all came in /  But I know I’ll again chase after wind”.  In short, Crack-Up is, unique to a Fleet Foxes’ discography, in time and in tune with the current political and societal climate.

But Crack-Up, lyrically dense as it may be (just check out Pecknold’s own Geinus annotations on “Third of May / Odaigahara”, about his relationship with bandmate Skye Skjelset), is really a record about the music and the arrangements.  This album is enormous.  From the one minute mark of opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumprint Scar”, a rushing cacophony of aggressively strumming acoustic instruments and pounding bass drum rock the listener into some of the densest instrumentation Fleet Foxes have attempted.  The song’s conceptual structure is phenomenal; Pecknold debates himself, a low, insecure voice arguing one point before the arrangement takes the song by force once again and no less than eight vocal harmonies scream back at himself.  “I am hardly made of steel” – “Tell me, are you so concealed?!”  The dynamics and juxtaposition of loud to soft are masterfully done.  The rest of the record’s A-side follows with further lush instrumentation – the finger picking electric guitars on “-Naiads, Cassadies”, the haunting, jumbled piano on “Kept Woman” standing apart from the fray.  “Cassius,-” barrels ahead like a rapidly rushing stream, symbolic of Pecknold’s fall into the slipstream of social protest and in theme with the album’s water motif.

Of course, this front side is all a build up to the album’s unbelievable centerpiece, “Third of May / Odaigahara”.  Pecknold finally let’s his voice soar above the arrangement alone, free of third and fifth harmonies, and soar it does, reaching an absolutely gorgeous high melody line.  That this is the most memorable, most sing-a-longable but also the densest and most conceptual and complex song here is astonishing.  Again, loud soft dynamics serve to highlight Pecknold’s back and forth with himself, moving through time in Fleet Foxes’ history, shuttling himself to Columbia and back to Seattle (“Now, back in our town, as a castaway”) but constantly comforted by friendship and music (“But I can hear you out in the center / Oh how we were made to be crowded together like leaves”).  The song moves into an aggressive minor key movement before making way for the ambient, Japanese-inspired “Odaigahara” section that caps off its nearly nine-minute run time.  This track is ridiculous and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it atop best song lists by year’s end.

Crack-Up is carefully sequenced, following the gigantic “Third of May” with the gentle and reassuring “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me”.  The album then falls into its darker, murkier second half, where the personal mantra-like “Mearcstapa” evokes cold Northern European seas both in lyrical imagery and ambient tone.  “On Another Ocean (January / June)” features ominous piano as Pecknold continuous to dig into himself and his choices.  The record ends the trek down the other side of the mountain with the nearly formless and drifting “I Should See Memphis” (which, I should mention, features my only issue with the production, on Pecknold’s vocal”) and the slow, steady title track, which again sees Pecknold debating himself in multiple voices (“I can tell you’ve cracked / Like a china plate”) before ending the record with horns, a choir of voices and the sound of someone running down a staircase and out the door.

Every second of Crack-Up is more densely arranged than just about anything else out there, the record alternates between personal and political, there are myriad conceptual moments carried out in the production, there are definite motifs and lyrical themes, the songs are often very beautiful, and the sequencing is spot-on.  The only fault I can really find with this album is that it lacks the catchy upbeat, marquee singles the previous records featured, and calling that a ‘fault’ feels pretty flimsy.  I think Fleet Foxes have delivered an album rich and detailed enough to warrant countless deep listens, each unveiling new pieces of the album’s many themes and textures.  I don’t know if this is my favorite Fleet Foxes album – I really do love singing along with the by now canonical melodies on many of the tracks from their self-titled debut – but it’s pretty much everything a band could hope to deliver on one fifty-five minute LP, and I anticipate seeing it referenced as one of 2017’s definitive albums in the years to come.

Score: 12/13

Advertisements

Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City, Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 narrative concept album, was, besides far and away the strongest album in a strong year, the second rap album I ever got into (the first belongs, perhaps surprisingly, to Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris).  After a few listens, I proclaimed, to no one but myself, really, that Kendrick was the best rapper of all time, and that GKMC was something like The Beatles’ Revolver – so far above every other contemporary album that nothing else even registered as competition.  Clearly this was a brazen position, but after following up with 2015’s consensus album of the year (To Pimp a Butterfly) and now DAMN., which is sure to top many a 2017 year-end list, I feel pretty darn smarmy and pretentious as I watch writers and critics start to gingerly test the waters of ‘greatest of all time’ claims.  To me, DAMN. is Kendrick saying ‘hey, I don’t need an 80 minute concept album to still kick the shit out of every other rapper out there.  I can do what y’all do better than you can, but you can’t even touch what I put out when I’m on my game.”  Thus, DAMN. isn’t a masterpiece the way Kendrick’s last two LPs were, but it’s still the best rap record to come out since his last one.

As many have pointed out before me, just because DAMN. doesn’t hit you over the head with one big, central concept doesn’t mean its at all lacking in themes or motifs.  Just look the all caps, single word track listing evocative of the seven deadly sins or ten commandments.  Songs like “LOVE” and “LUST” or “HUMBLE” and “PRIDE” aren’t sequenced next to each other by accident.  This is an album about the wide range of emotions Kendrick feels after sitting on top of the rap world for nearly half a decade now, contextualized by his status as an influential black man in post-Black Lives Matter, post-Trump America.  It’s political because being Kendrick Lamar in 2017 is inherently political.  It’s dark and maddening, revealing and honest – a glimpse behind the curtain at a rapper who most prominently shows himself through relaying the stories and experiences of others.  “Niggas thought they wasn’t gonna see me, huh? / Niggas thought that K-Dot real life was the same life they see on TV, huh?” he confirms on “ELEMENT”.

Each of these tracks tackles an aspect of Kendrick’s complex personality represented by the title.  On the aggressive thumping “DNA” he flashes boasts tracing back to his African roots – “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”, but also makes mention of the violence his family tree has witnessed “I know murder conviction / Scholars, fathers dead with kids / Yeah yeah, soldier’s DNA”.  On “PRIDE” he checks himself and the relationship between his actions and intentions – “I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid / Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays”, but he follows up with “HUMBLE”, the album’s single and biggest banger, in which he instructs every other rapper (*cough Drake cough*) to “Sit down, little bitch, be humble.”  Kendrick is perceptive and introspective enough to rip his own flaws out of them and display them under a bright light like a science experiment, but still human enough to revert back to his own greed for unilateral recognition as the best rapper alive.

The production all over the album is excellent.  The choruses and hooks often feature guest soul singers and see Kendrick dipping into one of the many voices he commands (high pitched, slurred, low and drugged, robotic), effectively creating a subconscious backdrop to the true Kendrick present on the verses.  The arrangements are more minimal and straightforward than much of To Pimp a Butterfly, but I think that only serves to strengthen the tracks, focusing them more singularly around Kendrick’s voice on the album on which he delves the deepest into himself.  Accordingly, there are no guest verses (just Rihanna, Zacari and Bono on three of the hooks).  The low key, chilled-out tracks like “YAH” and “FEAR” (which refer to one another) ride great slide guitar riffs, spacey, echoing vocals and 90s boom-bap beats.  “HUMBLE” and “DNA” hit harder than just about everything since Danny Brown’s last album, and they don’t really make any attempt to conform to the trap zeitgeist.  The Bono feature, “XXX”, goes over way better than anyone probably expected (which was probably a bad bet – it is Kendrick, after all).  “ELEMENT”‘s hook of “Imma make it look sexy,” is already a universal catchphrase.  Even the ‘corny’ love song that takes a break from harrowing self-surgery rides a sweet, catchy hook and Akon inspired flow that would have been a top five single for someone like Drake. (Sidenote: does anyone else miss Akon?)  In short, Kendrick can do any style, any tempo, and any aesthetic better than anyone else can, and on DAMN. he manages to do it while simultaneously peering deeper into his soul than Drake’s managed on all six of his albums combined.

No review of DAMN. would be complete without mention of “DUCKWORTH”, the final track.  This is a story song in the truest sense – it’s the true story of Kendrick’s father meeting Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, the owner of the record label that’s had his back since the beginning.  Kendrick flashes legendary story-telling skills for only a single track, but it’s enough to recognize just how far he’s come since GKMC.  How many internal rhymes are in “That’s when affiliation was really eight gears of war / So many relatives tellin us, sellin us devilish works / Killin us, crime, intelligent, felonious, prevalent proposition with 9’s”?  How does he manage in four lines (“Southside Projects, Chiraq, the Terror Dome / Drove to California with woman on him and 500 dollars / They had a son, hopin that he’d see college / Hustlin’ on the side with a nine-to-five to freak it”) to do justice to one young man’s courageous life-changing decision?  How does he have the vision to foresee his life’s alternate path (“Because if Anthony killed Ducky, Top Dawg would be servin’ life / While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight”) and then tie that all back to the album’s introduction, where Kendrick is killed, perhaps rendering the entire record a concept album after all?  Because it’s fucking Kendrick Lamar, the best rapper of all time.

Score:  12/13