FLEET FOXES Vivid Live, Opera House, May 26
Here’s a superficial response to the first Fleet Foxes gig in Sydney in five years, and their first anywhere outside a few warm up gigs in out of the way bars recently, in nearly as long: Robin Pecknold’s time studying music theory seems to have borne fruit.
Here’s a slightly less superficial response: judging by the raft of new songs we heard they don’t do the pretty quite as much, or the dreamy quite as often as they used to, but they sure have amped up the artiness.
The reconstituted/rebuilt Fleet Foxes retain some of the elements which defined them and their restitution of harmony folk as a basis for lightly toasted psychedelic pop at the turn of this decade.
They can still do some exquisite vocalising; Pecknold still has a need for incessant tuning, sometimes between verses not just between songs; White Winter Hymnal, among a handful of older songs, brings the pastoral to the city stage so well you can almost smell the pine trees; and did I mention the pretty?
This, however, no longer is the end point for Fleet Foxes: this is a knottier, maybe even gnarlier band than last we saw. There is more to unveil, musically, and unpack, symbolically, now.
Newer songs tend to detour into if not complexity then at least fracturing of obvious routes, changing shape where once linear ruled. Melodies and harmonies also veer off the expected track, offering a sense of disjointedness - which is in truth an illusion caused by the tonal rather that any structural quirks.
Live, Fleet Foxes always had more musculature on show than was evident on the records, their connection to acts like Mercury Rev clearer in the thick keyboards and beefier guitars. They are not any heavier this time around but they are in a sense trippier.
Within the flow of the show, at least until the last quarter (which included a surprisingly long encore of half an hour), the older songs served as startling reminders of another time and place flashing up behind the new facades.
Their dreaminess was punctuation rather than the story and their emotions were dressing over the intellectual rather than the whole outfit. The balance, not just the songs, was new.
Which all made for an experience more fascinating than completely engaging, more thought through/though about than instinctively responded to.
Is that better? Worse? Don’t know; maybe it just is.