Sub Pop, the same label that introduced the world to grunge, would turn around nearly two decades later and give us grunge’s placid antidote with Fleet Foxes’ transcendent self-titled debut album. The band’s baroque, bucolic indie folk couldn’t sound further away from the caffeinated buzz of Seattle—or any modern city for that matter. Instead, Fleet Foxes plants us in a woodsy, whimsical fairytale set sometime between the Renaissance (the album’s cover is a 1559 piece from Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder) and some distant sylvan future.
The album opens at dawn with a playful a capella chant that leads into sweet Americana: “Sun risin’ over my head,” lead singer Robin Pecknold draws out hypnotically, his voice and guitar awash in reverb as warm as the sun soaking a wide-open field. The band builds from this beauty on “White Winter Hymnal,” with its echoing tom-toms enveloped in layered vocal harmonies that create an organic surround-sound feel, and the dynamic “Ragged Wood,” which pieces together shimmering strings for a spirited stop-and-go chase through the forest. The stunning wall-of-sound effect throughout—bolstered by instruments like the autoharp and Chinese zither and the quintet’s own sacred-harp singing—reaches its peak on “Heard Them Stirring,” a humming reverie that earning them Beach Boys comparisons without the need for lyrics.
Still, just as the Bruegel cover reveals the devil’s in the details, darkness pervades the album: The hushed acoustic stunner “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” speaks of demons and deadly premonitions, while the flute-adorned “Your Protector” has us running with the devil at a heart-pounding pace. All of it—the earthly sounds and unearthly visions—linger long after, just like Pecknold’s final haunting howl on closer “Oliver James.”