When the Fleet Foxes first emerged into the public eye it was quite the revelation. I had just started college in 2006, right at that age when you’re free to follow every whim of being a now independent individual (or as independent as you think you are when you first leave home). Considering I didn’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of the indie music scene, It would be a few years still until I’d actually hear of the Portland band.
Late one fall evening a few years later, my friend Ben patiently explained to me the merits of the buzzworthy band Fleet Foxes, introducing me song by song to their golden chamber-folk harmonies and traditional song arrangements. I enjoyed the music, finding it warm, pleasant and more natural than much of the music I’d heard before. Part of its appeal was that it danced the perfect line between retro and cutting edge, recycling the sounds of yesteryear for a new audience, like so many great bands do so well. But I wasn’t yet hooked.
The real moment of devotion didn’t come for me until 2011, when I watched the music video for “Grown Ocean” while working in a mind-numbing retail store in Aspen, Colorado. The song was the last track off their 2011 release “Helplessness Blues,” which was the quantum leap forward in production and song arrangement that singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold had promised for the project. For me, the grainy Super-8 footage set to the angelic harmonies of “Grown Ocean” showed me a world I hardly knew, that of magical folk sounds and sepia-toned bliss that insinuated a wild reconnection with nature and the homegrown earthiness that our industrial society had lost.
“First Collection 2006 – 2009” covers the years leading up to the ecstatic vision that was “Helplessness Blues,” marking the ten-year anniversary of the release of the “Sun Giant” EP and the “Fleet Foxes” LP in 2008. In those days, Pecknold was just beginning to put form to his chamber-folk ideas, ones that finally came to fruition in those two releases. One can see the stark difference in sound between 2006’s “The Fleet Foxes” EP and their “Sun Giant” EP in 2008. Their 2006 record sounds more like an indie rock band from the mid 2000s, with jangling guitars, syncopated leads, and driving drums taking the forefront. By 2008, though, we see how the Fleet Foxes sound had been distilled into its essence, concentrating more on harmonies, traditional folk chord structures, and song arrangements. Through these elements the band would discover the subtle complexity and spacious sound they would come to be known for.
As a unique collection for followers of the band, though, this album doesn’t present much new material. For diehard fans we only get a few fresh B-sides and rarities from the Fleet Foxes catalog. For those who haven’t heard their lesser-known tunes from their first EP, like “In the Hot, Hot Rays” and “She Got Dressed,” this box set will be a real insight, allowing you to see the band’s journey from initial sound to a more artistic vision. The same goes for the B-sides. Many fans have heard these tracks before, especially the memorable, melancholic tune “Isles,” which features some of Pecknold’s finest guitar work to date, and the traditional folk tune “False Knight on the Road.”
The demos are a different story. These probably won’t have much appeal to the majority of fans, unless you can’t wait to hear some messy basement recordings of a few of their 2008 tracks, such as “Ragged Wood” and “He Doesn’t Know Why.” The “English House” demo is the most interesting, with a floating, ethereal reverb surrounding the band’s famous harmonies. For those who want a peek into the Fleet Foxes’ process, though, these tracks offer a new angle into the raw, formative sounds they were working with to manifest their sound.
The inclusion of additional tracks like “Hot Air,” would have been worlds more interesting. This track is the kind of sound experiment I could imagine a band like Fleet Foxes shuffled off in nearly every jam session, so vibrant and fresh was their approach to music. At 49 seconds, though, we only get a small taste of what surely is an incomplete reservoir of demos and outtakes from the band. Seeing more from the fledgling composer and craftsman that Pecknold was at the time would be thrilling, to say the least.
All the great songs from their first years are here, though. Their first hit, “Mykonos,” their choir singalong “White Winter Hymnal” (so many of us couldn’t get that intro out of our head: “I, was following the I, was…”), and the kaleidoscope journey of the “Blue Ridge Mountains.” Pecknold and the Fleet Foxes single handedly made poetic, rootsy music cool again in the late 2000s, seeming to sweep a whole coffee-shop folkcraft scene along with them. Bands like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers and the whole foot-stomping folk revival are partly their doing. As many originals are, they were the best of them, though – uncompromising, full of incredible depth, and wholeheartedly committed to their craft.
This box set becomes even more intriguing since we got a taste of the next chapter of the Fleet Foxes in 2017 with their album “Crack-Up,” an even farther departure from their humble beginnings than “Helplessness Blues” ever was. As befuddling as it multifaceted, “Crack-Up” demonstrates Pecknold’s far-reaching musical ideas through complicated song structures and sudden tonal shifts, as well as oblique, referential lyrics that he will explain to you on the Genius website if you’re willing to look them up. It’s great to see an artist still committed to putting out challenging work a decade after his band caught the public’s attention. Instead of reimagining the ways they found popularity, they are blazing new trails ahead.
That being said, “First Collection 2006 – 2009” is a comprehensive reminder of the beginning of an exciting new music scene and the emergence of truly unique band. Based on those merits alone, it’s worth taking another journey through their catalog.