Release Date: 3 June 2008
Fleet Foxes may have a firm grasp on rock and folk history, but they never play to their record collection. Rather than revive a particular scene or re-create a lost sound, the Seattle quintet cherrypick their ideas from a broad spectrum of styles, pulling in Appalachian folk, classic rock, AM country, and SoCal pop to create a personal synthesis of the music of their peers, their parents, and even their grandparents.
For all the album's winding paths and unexpected vistas, Fleet Foxes' harmonies remain the primary draw, and they've written and arranged these songs to showcase their shared vocals. "Heard Them Stirring" has no lyrics, but it's hard to call it an instrumental. Against a shuffling shaker-and-tambourine rhythm, "Ragged Wood" switches between Robin Pecknold's lead vocals and the band's harmonies after each verse, effectively translating classic rock via folk elements. There's as much Fleetwood Mac as the Band in the song's rousing finale. On the other hand, Fleet Foxes do restraint just as well: "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" features only a lone acoustic guitar and Pecknold's forceful vocals, which switch to a spooky falsetto on the outro.
Vocals play such a primary role in Fleet Foxes' music that Pecknold's lyrics at times sound like merely a delivery system for harmonies, with references to meadowlarks, rising suns, and streams bolstering the rural and placeless evocations. However, these are ultimately carefully and well-crafted compositions. On "White Winter Hymnal", a firelit roundelay that best showcases the band's vocal interplay, the lyrics convey strange, almost Edward Gorey-like imagery: "I was following the pack/ All swallowed in their coats/ With scarves of red tied 'round their throats/ To keep their little heads from falling in the snow/ And I turned 'round and there you go." Who knows exactly what the words mean, but the fairy-tale menace comes through in full color, and Peterson's floor-tom beat and the intricacy of the band's harmonies dispel the threat without diluting the mystery.
Fleet Foxes ends with "Oliver James", another nearly a cappella showcase for Pecknold's solo vocals. As he thumps out a soft rhythm on his Martin acoustic, he sings about handmade tables and long-gone grandparents, howling the chorus "Oliver James, washed in the rain/ No longer." The brief snippet of "Red Squirrel" and "Sun It Rises" invites you into Fleet Foxes' debut, but "Oliver James" doesn't shoo you out the door. Instead, Fleet Foxes let you linger for a few more bars, leaning forward to catch Pecknold's last syllable as it fades into the air. They don't seem to want the record to end any more than you will.
- Stephen M. Deusner, Pitchfork (2008)