Props to Helplessness Blues for making the fretless zither cool again. On their second album, Fleet Foxes continue to take their music in unusual directions, creating a baroque folk-pop sound that hints at a number of influences -- Simon & Garfunkel, Fairport Convention, the Beach Boys -- but is too unique, too esoteric, too damn weird to warrant any direct links between the Seattle boys and their predecessors. It's still a downright gorgeous record, though, filled to the brim with glee club harmonies and the sort of stringed instruments that are virtually unknown to anyone who didn't go to music school (and even if you did, when's the last time you rocked out on the Marxophone?). Relying on obscure instrumentation can be a dangerous game, and Fleet Foxes occasionally run the risk of sounding too clever for their own good, as if the need to "out-folk" groups like Mumford & Sons and Midlake is more important than writing memorable, articulate folk tunes. But Helplessness Blues has the necessary songs to back it up, from the slow crescendos of the album-opening "Montezuma" to the sweeping orchestral arrangement of the encore number, "Grown Ocean." Robin Pecknold remains the ringleader of this Celtic circus. His is the only voice to cut through the thick, lush harmonies that Fleet Foxes splash across every refrain like paint, and his lyrics -- rife with allusions to the Bible, Dante the Magician, and the poetry of W.B. Yeats -- reach beyond the territory he occupied on the band’s first record, which painted simple geographical portraits with songs like "Sun It Rises," "Ragged Wood," "Quiet Houses," and "Blue Ridge Mountains." On Helplessness Blues, he's just as interested in the landscape of the human heart. Still, it's the music that stands out, and the band's acoustic folk/chamber pop combo makes every song sound like a grand tribute to back-to-the-land living.
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AllMusic Review by Andrew Leahey