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Live review: Fleet Foxes at the Hollywood Palladium

May 8, 2011 |  8:24 pm

Fleet foxes
As far as pop music insurrections go, the recent success of such dewy folk acts as England's Mumford & Sons, L.A.'s Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and the sylvan Seattle combo Fleet Foxes, which performed to a sold-out crowd at the Hollywood Palladium on Saturday, is a pretty mild-mannered one. But the huge sales figures and over-capacity theaters each have earned in the last two years suggest an interesting question -- what's making hundreds of thousands of fans turn to some of the most traditional and comforting sounds in popular music in the last 40 years?

The band's 2008 debut of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young-style harmonies and acoustic madrigals sold around 400,000 copies in America. Its album "Helplessness Blues" came out May 2. Given that the beard-nuzzling on Foxes' albums is practically audible, frontman Robin Pecknold is an unlikely star. His lyrics make those by the Decemberists' Colin Meloy seem dangerous -- collies are petted, woodland cabins are built by loving grandfathers, Pecknold laments, "Oh, man, what I used to be" at 25.

But Fleet Foxes' technical skill leavened the birding-club goofiness on Saturday night. Drummer Josh Tillman lent unexpected percussive heft, and new bassist Morgan Henderson (formerly of the spazzy art-punks Blood Brothers) has a wide quiver of strings and woodwinds to color the margins. The band's immaculate three- and four-part harmonies seep into every corner of the music.

At the Palladium, those pristine voices started the show as a force of nature on par with any mountain range in Fleet Foxes' lyrical world. But nearly two hours later, one left the set with a sense that they might be a lovely window dressing to distract from some middlebrow songwriting.

"The Shrine/An Argument" is one of the centerpieces of "Helplessness Blues," and it has a touch of the sparking drone of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" to it. But even the most tender artisinal furniture carver would be hard pressed to get through a chorus like "Apples in the summer are golden sweet/ every day a passing complete" without wanting to pound some bourbon and see what your crazy ex-girlfriend with the neck tattoo is up to at 3 a.m.

At the best moments, the songs were saved by savvy arrangements -- "Grown Ocean" deftly spun strings, and when Henderson peeled off a Coltrane-worthy sax-noise solo, the set glimpsed at Fleet Foxes' possibilities if they ditched the sweaters occasionally.

-- August Brown

Photo: Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold, right, sings lead vocals and plays guitar and Christian Wargo plays bass guitar and sings vocals. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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