In ‘Off the Record’, I write about music that I’ve played over and over and over and over, even though it might not be cool or new or undiscovered. Most likely, these will be albums that have been written about time and time again, but, nonetheless, hold a very dear place in my heart. I will also only allow the length of the album’s running time to write about it (as both a time-saver and a challenge).
I first wrote about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Next up: Fleet Foxes’ eponymous debut LP. *presses play*
The opening seconds of this album are so nostalgic to listen to. “Red squirrel in the morning, red squirrel in the evening, red squirrel in the morning, I’m coming to take you home.” Utter nonsense, but a truly memorable opener to this, one of the most stunning debut albums ever recorded (in my humble opinion, obviously).
Let’s first up talk about why I decided to write about this for my Off the Shelf mini-series, where I write about albums (cool or uncool, well-known or obscure) in the time it takes to listen to them. I didn’t discover some of the great folk singers from the ‘60s and ‘70s until my mid-teens because I was listening to this Fleet Foxes album on repeat. The album was released in 2008 (when I was 12! how terrible it is to be 12 years old!), the same year my dad took me to see the band at Cambridge Junction, a tiny and intimate venue where we stood a metre or so from the band’s psuedo-shy-turned-Instagram-king frontman, Robin Pecknold. The experience of being at that gig was like nothing I’d ever experienced (and have not experienced since).
On my dad’s recommendation, I’d listened to the album a few times before we went, and I really liked it. It’s complex but accessible, the harmonies are unbelievably pleasing to the ear (and immensely satisfying to the ex-cathedral chorister in me). The album was immediately comforting to hear; so wintry, so cosy (despite the fact it was released in June). The artwork (which must have really helped this album get noticed) is so perfectly apt for it. I didn’t know of Pieter Bruegel’s work before, but as a culture-hungry pre-teen I scoured Tumblr for more Bruegel afterwards. There’s a couple of Bruegel works in the National Gallery, and I remember one weekend stumbling upon them when I came to London for the day, all sulky and broke. “That’s my band!”, I thought, when I saw it. “The motherf***in’ Foxes!” Appropriating Renaissance paintings, like the Tabloid Art History Twitter account, but IRL.
Anyway, listening to the album has now progressed in such a way that we’re now on the fourth track, Tiger Mountain Peasant Song. This, again, is hugely reminiscent of my early teens, sitting on my bed in a box room in the countryside, wincing at the pain of calloused fingers as I tried to learn the tab for this song on the guitar my parents got me for my 13th birthday. It also reminds me of the viral video that got First Aid Kit a record deal. Warning: this is so #forest vibes, and so 2010. And, jeez, they look SO young!
It’s now dawned on me that I know pretty much every word of this album. I’m finding it tricky to write as I’m singing along too hard! On He Doesn’t Know Why, you can hear Father John Misty’s, the artist formerly known as J. Tillman, lovely, thumping drums. And then, that gorgeous, a-third-apart piano sound at the end. My, my, my, does this album even get the credit it deserves? *pauses to fangirl*
Strangely, as in reverse (and probably not uncommon for those of us born in ‘96), it was this fashionable late-Noughties era of folk that got me listening to the music that influenced it, and thus changed my life forever. So, your Fleet Foxes’ and Laura Marling debut of ‘08, the whole Mumford and Sons shit, etc, ad infinitum, got me reading lots of interviews with the bands which oft referenced artists such as Neil Young (solo and with Crosby, Still and Nash) Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Therefore, I owe a lot to this band.
Now, we’ve reached Meadowlarks. Another that’s quite easy to learn the guitar part to (a surefire dealbreaker of the music you’re listening to when you’re learning an instrument) and I yearned for a group of muso-loving friends who’d come round and sing it with me. I actually recorded two of the harmonies on this track and sang along to it (one on my PC, one of my phone. Yes, PC. The family PC).
Track number 10, Blue Ridge Mountains, is baffling in the way you might think: ‘How is this album getting better and better? It’s less than 40 minutes long!’ The melody in the verse punches and rises in an uplifting, timeless and determined way; a melody written by a 19-year-old Pecknold. The record ends with a jaw-dropping track recorded in the 1500s (jk), Oliver James, which, when we went to see the band at the Junction, was performed acapella by Pecknold. I will never forget the atmosphere in that room as the audience stood there, transfixed. It was truly magnificent, and it’s what keeps me going to see live music – the chance that you might stumble across a moment like that, where the world stops and a group of strangers share an experience that won’t ever be repeated in the same way again.
This album remains on my shelf as it captures a very distinct part of my adolescence: long winters crushing on boys who thought I was a lesbian, wearing fleecy lumberjack shirts, and familiarising myself with basic guitar chords, frustrated yet determined by the horrible truth that I couldn’t quite play what’s recorded on the album. I still can’t. It’s a modern classic.