Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Ragged Wood" / Fleet Foxes

I guess it's good that there aren't so many record stores around anymore. Whenver I do walk into one, I'll impulse buy a dozen CDs at once, often on the flimsiest pretexts -- like, I heard one track on Sirius radio and liked it. (Of course, I'm probably more susceptible just because walking into a record store is such a rare event now.) That's how I acquired this debut album by the Fleet Foxes -- which then sat on my desk, unopened, for three months. No offense, guys, I just was overloaded.

By the time I finally listened to Fleet Foxes, I couldn't remember what they sounded like -- so when this gorgeous thing burst upon my ears, it took me totally by surprise. With Hollies-like harmonies and a rootsy, folk-inflected vibe (they almost outdo the Decemberists in their arty English ballad lyrics), they're much more romantic than I'd expected.

The third track on the album, "Ragged Wood" is a sweetheart. It hits you right off with a wall of harmonized vocals -- "Whoa-oh-oh" -- for a split second I think it's gonna be Billy Joel's "For The Longest Time," that's how classic that doo-wop opening is. (Maybe it's the reverb, too -- taking a page from My Morning Jacket, boys?) But once the verse gets under way, we're in folk territory, with Robin Pecknold freewheeling through a jaunty melody: "Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long / The spring is upon us, follow my only song." Vintage pastoral, that. They're not afraid of using metaphor, that's for sure: "Settle down with me by the fire of my yearning," he urges her. "You should come back home, back on your own now" -- Pecknold's plaintive vocal sells this for all it's worth. I like the fact that it's the woman who's roaming here, the man who's fretting by the fireside (shades of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Darling Be Home Soon," one of the sexiest songs ever.) "Darling, I can barely remember you beside me," he sighs in verse two. We're talking urgent.

The song structure is more jazzlike than traditional pop, though. After two verses, they shift into a bridge, the reverbed vocal harmonies sounding almost a cappella over a light finger-picked guitar. And they're going full-bore poetic: "In the evening light, when the woman of the woods came by / To give to you the word of the old man" -- wait, who are these people? He doesn't explain, nor does he explain the characters in the next couple: "In the morning tide, when the sparrow and the seagull fly / And Jonathan and Evelyn get tired." But seeing the old people in twilight, the young lovers at dawn, has a lovely poetic resonance; it's like he's tracing the arc of his own relationship. And if his girl doesn't get home, they'll never get to be the old folks in the picture.

Morphing into an instrumental break, the song hushes down to a simple syncopated guitar lick (I love how it circles dizzily around, repeating like a tic), gradually layering on vocal ohs, then a bass line, then cymbals. By the time we get the whole drum kit, they've shifted into yet another melody, a series of cautiously climbing chord shifts -- with harmonized vocals, naturally -- "Lie to me if you will / At the top of Barringer Hill." (I'm assuming there's a girl somewhere who knows Barringer Hill perfectly well.) Then the melody crests and spills over, "Tell me anything you want, / Any old lie will do / Call me back to you." Oh, he's helpless in love, all right. Mama likes that.

Jeez, if these guys are this distinctive-sounding on their first album, I can't wait to see where they go next. No wonder they generated such viral My Space action and drew concert crowds way before they even secured a record deal. Who needs label PR when you've actually got a sound?

Ragged Wood mp3


Will Birch said...

I enjoy reading your blog.

Holly A Hughes said...

Aw gee, thanks, Will! That means a lot, coming from a significant writer/musician like you. Any readers who don't know who Will Birch is, go straight to his website: I am so indebted to you for your book No Sleep Till Canvey Island.

Holly A Hughes said...

And FYI, dear readers, Will also has a major new Ian Dury bio coming out -- just read the review yesterday -- can't wait to get my hands on that one!

Neal said...

Holly, your ruminations on this song are as enchated as their subject. Nicely done!