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LISTENING STATION: A world full of ‘Blues’

Fleet Foxes meld soaring harmonies, exotic instruments

- - Monday, May 2, 2011

Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes

Sub Pop Records

Sifting through the liner notes for "Helplessness Blues," Fleet Foxes' second album, is like looking at a world-music textbook: Exotic instruments are everywhere, from the Marxophone — a fretless zither that hasn't been produced in decades — to several variations of the harp. Also included are a handful of synthesizers and obsolete keyboards, most of which require a little Google sleuthing to discern their actual purpose.

Fleet Foxes have built a career on challenging everything we expect from a modern-day folk band. On "Helplessness Blues," they turn a bizarre hodgepodge of instruments into a gorgeous sophomore album, creating a sound that's unique but hardly jarring. There's a sense of warmth to these songs, not to mention an avant-garde approach to a genre that, in the years since Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut, has become congested with countless bearded, flannel-wearing troubadours looking for their own piece of the folk pie.

Let's be honest. The Seattle-based 20-somethings who fill Fleet Foxes' ranks aren't exceptional players. They don't strum their way into an epic, cathartic froth like Mumford & Sons, and they rarely take solos.

What they continue to do very well, however, is sing. The guys stack their voices into towering harmonies on nearly every song, separating themselves from the competition by putting their own spin on the glee-club tradition. The result is a singular sound that splits the difference between British folk, baroque madrigals and contemporary Americana.

On songs such as "Montezuma" and "Sim Sala Bim," Fleet Foxes drape their harmonies over earthy, sepia-toned melodies. The music pulls from Appalachian traditions one minute and British conventions the next, but it rarely fails to create a sense of nostalgia for an earlier, unspecific era. It's hard to pinpoint the source of Fleet Foxes' inspiration, but man, does it ever sound nice.

Producer Phil Ek, the architect behind albums by many of Seattle's best bands, deserves his own praise. There's a lot going on in "Helplessness Blues," and he swathes the whole thing in reverb without blurring the lines between each instrument. Listening to the album with headphones is tantamount to watching the band perform inside a large, echoing church but sitting close enough to the front pew to discern each individual note.

Aretha Franklin partners with Walmart

When Aretha Franklin released her Christmas album in 2008, she gave the exclusive distribution rights to Borders. Now the Queen of Soul has partnered with another retailer, Walmart, for her upcoming solo record.

Formerly the largest music retailer in the country, Walmart has enjoyed a long run of exclusive releases. The Eagles kicked things off in 2007 with "Long Road Out of Eden," which sold more than 700,000 copies in its first week alone. Another Walmart exclusive, AC/DC's "Black Ice," was the second-best-selling record of 2008.

The tables have since turned. ITunes is now the music industry's No. 1 retailer, accounting for more than a quarter of the albums, EPs and singles purchased in America every year. The rising popularity of digital music, not to mention the steady decline of physical sales, is largely responsible for the change.

"Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love" will hit Walmart outlets on May 3. One month later, fans will be able to download the album in digital form from iTunes. This arrangement is different from past Walmart releases, which retained a much tighter hold on the material.

Does Miss Franklin's album foreshadow an end to exclusive releases from Walmart, Starbucks and other physical retailers? Possibly. Show us a band that's willing to release a new album without Apple's help, and we'll show you a chain of fools.

In Your Dreams

Stevie Nicks

Reprise

Another legend makes her return to the mainstream this week. Stevie Nicks, who hasn't released a solo album in 10 years, will throw a bone to her longtime supporters with "In Your Dreams," a confident pop record featuring cameos by Mick Fleetwood and Mike Campbell.

Now in her 60s, Miss Nicks has a weathered voice that lacks the power of its younger self. Producer David Stewart glosses over the flaws by adding sterling harmonies and ringing guitars to the mix. If "Dreams" is lacking in the vocal department, it's still strong when it comes to songwriting. Stealing the show is the gorgeous, atmospheric "Secret Love," a discarded Stevie original from 1976 that makes its debut at the beginning of the track list.