I hadn't either until I started listening to Fleet Foxes' magnificent new album, Shore. The group announced and released this new recording almost simultaneously this week, appearing first on streaming media services like Tidal, Qobuz and Spotify. Those versions will be the focus for this review (more on the physical releases in a moment).
One of my favorite groups these days -- I've been a fan since their second album, Helplessness Blues -- Shore is the follow up to Fleet Foxes' acclaimed 2017 release Crack-Up. A Top 10 hit on the Billboard 200 charts, that album was pretty much my favorite album that year (click here to read my review).
Inspired by surviving a life-threatening rip-current surfing experience, lead singer, composer, guitarist and all around main driver of Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold, has created a worthy successor to Crack-Up. Expanding on ideas begun there, Shore is as uplifting and inspiring as it is musically challenging.
How do I describe this music on Shore? Well, if there was such a thing as progressive folk-rock that might be close but I think there is more going on in the wall of sound the band has crafted here. The arrangements on Shore are tighter and in a way more refined than on Crack-Up, but the songs are no less complex and dense. All bear that magical sense of harmonic wonder, surprising rhythmic time change ups, lush textures and subtle melodies that creep into your psyche.
I read on the Wiki that one song on Shore includes a sample from The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and that notion really underscores the aspiration of Fleet Foxes. That track, "Cradling Mother, Cradling Women" turned into a bit of a rabbit hole game for me of "spot the influence" (something I like to play when trying to describe music in words!).
Accordingly, this piece feels like a mutant love child of David Crosby's "Deja Vu" and King Crimson's "Three Of A Perfect Pair," by way of David Byrne and Robert Wilson's "Theodora Is Dozing" (From The Knee Plays) and perhaps a Philip Glass piece such as "Freezing" (click on any of those titles to hear the songs on YouTube). "Going The Sun Road" features gorgeous hypnotic harpsichord signatures and looping circular horn patterns.
Since I have access to all three streaming services, thought I'd point out differences I'm hearing on how the music sounds across these platforms.
On Spotify -- which is approximately, and relatively, low fidelity MP3 quality -- the opening songs ("Wading In Waist High Water" and "Sunblind") sound quite woosh-y and harsh, with this sort of ear-pain-inducing tinny spike enveloping the whole of the music, especially as one turns up the volume. The vocals sound more sibilant and in general the music sounds one dimensional. The cymbals are not especially clear and fall to the back of the track. The many layers guitars are indistinct. The bass is thin and thumpy.
On the CD-quality Tidal stream (16-bits, 44.1 kHz) for those same songs, the acoustic guitars sound immediately much richer and rounder. The vocals on are now breathy and less harsh. Distant horns in the background as well as backing harmonies are now much audible. Most significantly, when the song kicks in, the bass is much more resonant and distinct. On "Sunblind" the cymbals are much more present and now sound more like.. well... cymbals... The guitar sounds start to come to life here. The Stereo separation is also much more apparent here, with the piano call-and-responding with 12-string electric signatures. The acoustic 12-string is also more visible (if you will).
On the 24-bit, 48 kHz Hi Res stream found on Qobuz, the nylon string guitars are lovely and distinct. The breathy vocals are crisp but not harsh. Horn swells are now clearly audible on the opening track "Wading In Waist High Water." All the vocal layers are present and the snare drum sounds more like a snare drum on "Sunblind."
The vinyl pre-order for Shore is slated for February delivery! That kind of makes sense these days, when all sense of normalcy and new release tradition has been pretty much tossed out the window. With record label staff largely working from remotely from home, with skeletal staffs at that -- plus bands not being able to tour -- getting new music out any way possible is the bottom line.
Increasingly, as we are seeing here with this new Fleet Foxes album, a band or artist will offer an advance stream and / or download followed by a physical release when they can get them manufactured (vinyl LPs, CD, etc.).
That said, as soon as I get my copy of the album on vinyl I'll be sure to write an update review. Until then, do check out the streams, especially the ones on Tidal and Qobuz.
Shore is a beautiful album, a ray of hopeful sunlight during some of our darkest times here on Earth.
Music is turning out to be one of the hopeful salvations of 2020.