Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and indie-folk are too boring live - Reverb

I Might Be Wrong: Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and indie-folk are a bore

Fleet Foxes, experienced best on four legs (in a chair). Photo courtesy of Sub Pop records.

Fleet Foxes, experienced best on four legs (in a chair). Photo courtesy of Sub Pop records.

In July of 2008, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes played the basement of Union Hall in Brooklyn. It was an extremely intimate show — even for them — and was one of those “I was there” moments, standing mere feet away from singer Robin Pecknold. The band’s eponymous debut went on to be named the best album of the year by Pitchfork, Billboard and The Times of London (among others) and the group is more accustomed to giant theaters now then small bars. (A Denver gig takes place Thursday at the Fillmore.) Still, even standing there before they broke big, I couldn’t help but thinking, “Boy, I could really use a chair.”

Certainly, Fleet Foxes have musical merit. Their slow tempo folk joined the forefront of a widespread revivalist movement and their recordings are crisp and simple. Live, Pecknold’s voice cascades. None of it is lifeless but it’s almost all low-key and, yes, a bit boring.

“Boring” has become a bad word, but it doesn’t have to be: plenty of great art is filled with ennui. “New York Times” film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis recently co-authored a piece titled “In Defense of Slow and Boring,” in which Scott cites Terrence Malick’s philosophical trip “The Tree of Life” as an example.

The problem is, though, rock ‘n’ roll music, and its concerts most especially, is built on movement in a way that films and, say, a Mark Rothko painting are not. Fleet Foxes write songs with muted rhythms that beg to be played at dinner parties or before bed — not at the Fillmore Auditorium, where many in the standing crowd will come to know their knee-locked positions well.

There might be a couple more reasons for a deflated feeling with respect to Fleet Foxes. A) The group isn’t really doing anything new and, therefore, exciting. Their sound is a very centric take on folk-rock, with artists like Bonnie “Prince” Billy or Joanna Newsom forging fresher ground. B) Their new one, “Helplessness Blues” doesn’t do much that “Fleet Foxes” didn’t do already. In fact, a song like “Blue Spotted Tail” isn’t very good at all; it’s the maudlin lyrical equivalent to Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles.” That’s right: I just compared Fleet Foxes to Insane Clown Posse.

Both criticisms don’t ring all the way true with Justin Vernon and his Bon Iver moniker. He is now the cabin-recording archetype — at once lampooned by The Onion and drooled over by just about everyone else — for a reason. The band has a distinct sound — its own sound — Vernon’s falsetto croon rising above complex chord structures. Still, as with Fleet Foxes, I can’t help but thinking it doesn’t do a whole lot that Bon Iver’s previous effort, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” didn’t accomplish. (The exception being the faux-’80s “Beth / Rest,” a tune that’ll have you wanting to jump on a yacht with the Miami Vice dudes or drinking beers with Rob Lowe’s character from “St. Elmo’s Fire” stat.) And mark my words: The record will be atop many best-of year lists, too. Bon Iver seems to be another respectable, yet dull band. Descriptions like “subtle” and “nuanced” tend to be showered upon these guys; euphemisms both for what I’d call “boring.”

Listening to “Bon Iver,” I think back to the first time I saw the group in New York. It was also 2008, this time at Town Hall. It’s a 90-year-old theater, with great acoustics and ornate charm. Just off of Times Square, it has a dramatic flair and even a bit of old-man, well, nuance. It’s the kind of place that groups like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes should play: opera houses and music academies as opposed to dive bars or Spartan rock halls. Sitting in my chair, serenity all around, I yawned when the mood struck me and it felt just right.

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Colin St. John is a Denver-based writer and merrymaker. Follow him on Twitter and check out his blog.

  • http://incredimarc.com incredimarc

    You’re right, Colin!

    I like all of this music quite a bit, but I bowed out when my friends asked me to join them at the Fleet Foxes concert happening tomorrow. I think calling the whole genre a “bore” is an inch farther than I’d go, but the live aspect is right on the money.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jkkaufman Jake Kyler Kaufman

    I disagree. I respect your opinion but I disagree. 

    My strongest disagreement is your attempt at comparing slow music with slow film. Your argument there has no real merit. To say that music and live performance is built on a sort of movement is very shallow of you to say. Everything form of entertainment is based on movement. Live theatre is based on movement, just as much so as a concert is. Film is especially based on precise camera movements that create moments which tell a story. 

    A great acting coach once told me something that really stuck with me. He said, “the problem with people today is that they think they have something to prove or that they have to be thought-provoking when telling a story. Just tell the story and people will appreciate it more.”  I think that Fleet Foxes do have a “subtle” sound. I don’t think it’s boring. But I don’t think all music has to be new and refreshing. Sometimes you can just settle and enjoy something simple for a change. 

    I recently saw the band in KC at the Uptown and guess where I watched them from; the balcony. I sat the entire show pretty much. I knew that their music isn’t something I can dance and move around to, but something that I enjoy sitting and listening to. I also have to say that it was a welcome change from concerts that I’d been too recently. Sometimes its nice to just sit down and listen. You pick up on the energy from the crowd much better that way I think. 

    And comparing Fleet Foxes to ICP is a bit of a damn stretch. I think they deserve a little more lyrical credit than that.

  • O.K. Schwarz

    Hmm… I like what you’re saying with regards to ennui, idleness and art, but isn’t it a bit of a stretch to suggest that all concert-goers are seeking the archetypical “rock-and-roll” show? Don’t forget, live entertainment comes in many forms and isn’t exclusive to rock music; in fact, genres such as classical and avent-garde are often played at sit-down venues, or else chairs are often provided. While folk music has its roots in rock and popular music, I think that perhaps a less reactionary conclusion to draw might be that as decidedly mellow or “boring” music becomes popular and desirable, a shift in mentality from standing and dancing towards sitting and listening at certain concerts might be beneficial to the experience.

    It sounds like your ideal show includes dancing and moving- I think thats a common to a lot of folks who think of concerts as springing from a tradition that grew out of early rock and roll, the 60’s and even through the late 90s, but it certainly doesn’t account for listeners who might enjoy “dinner party” music in a live venue.

    Anyhow, I can’t help but agree that Fleet Foxes are “boring,” but I don’t mean that in the Terrence Malick sense that you mention, I just think that they lack originality and I don’t particularly enjoy their sound in any capacity. Bon Iver on the other hand… well I haven’t listened to his new album but For Emma is fantastic. Boring, but fantastic nonetheless. 

  • Hurls

    Agreed Colin, indie folk (and modern indie rock for that matter) are a total bore!  Let’s frickin’ rock already.

  • Funkmasterjcl

    as a folk/indie musician, i find Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver quite entertaining rather than boring. sure, the music is something you wouldn’t normally dance to, but it is does have the ability to loosen up your mind. it is obvious that the listeners of today are more attracted to something like rap or pop music. you know, something you can dance to. something that is catchy and sticks in your head. I believe that “Helplessness Blues” is a great album, similar to their last record, but different in ways. I think that Fleet Foxes are bringing back a classic folk sound, but at the same time making it modern. I haven’t heard another band that sounds like them, and I don’t think that there will ever be a band that will. the Fleet Foxes I first heard was “Textbook Love” and “In the Hot, Hot Rays.” two great songs that aren’t really as much of folk as their other songs. just because their music isn’t always exciting or “poppy” doesn’t mean it’s terrible music. everyone has there own opinion and no one can change that. Fleet Foxes have changed my view on music and inspired me to write a lot of the music I write today. oh, and I like Bon Iver.

  • Mdiamond13

    Gonna have to respectfully disagree. Calling Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver boring implies that listening to them doesn’t stimulate anything within you. I’m speaking more about Bon Iver when I say this, but music that you can’t dance to may not be the most exciting for a concert setting, but isn’t it true that music can be moving, thought-provoking, emotional, and all that great stuff? Even just standing or sitting at a more low-key concert can be mentally thrilling. Sure, you’re not gonna be dancing and screaming the words along, but you can truly relax and be deep in thought at a concert like Bon Iver’s. Additionally, if you read the lyrics to lots of the new Bon Iver tunes, you see how genius Justin Vernon is. That in itself is exciting to me! His lyrics are unique and cryptic, and being given the opportunity to interpret a song the way these make you is far from boring. It seems like you need music to be upbeat in order for it to be not boring, but I think that’s a pretty narrow-minded way to classify music. And you claim that Bon Iver’s sophomore album wasn’t much different than their debut, but I think they’ve taken a huge musical departure in their new album. They’re going in a different direction with their new stuff, which is also not boring at all. Perhaps next time you listen to one of these so-called “boring” bands, you should try to just clear your mind and let the music consume you. You might find that it’s not so boring after all.

  • Georgia

    don’t forget to throw The Avett Brothers, Ray LaMontagne, Munford and Sons, and most of the other Eagles of this Century filling up the guy in his forties as he clings to some form of credibility despite loss of hair and a need for botox.

  • El Gusano

    Just got back from the Fleet Foxes at the Fillmore.  You couldn’t have been more wrong about their show.   Having seen this band in two previous Denver appearances (both at the Hi Dive), I can say that they have improved exponentially both in their performance and songwriting.  
    Your claim that this kind of music is ‘a bore’ and your attempt to lump the Foxes in with Bon Iver are equally bogus.  The Fleet Foxes’ live show presents a great range of dynamics– intimate moments of fingerpicking and harmonies interspersed with pounding drums and distorted,  guitar.  It takes a lot more confidence as a performer to play some of the quiet and more experimental material live (bass clarinet solo, anyone?), rather than to simply appease the lowest expectations of the crowd– people like yourself, who show up expecting only well known songs and uptempo rockers.   
    So, take your own advice and stay at home— we’d hate for you to show and be bored.

  • Guest

    To each their own.

  • Scattered131

    Jesus, I’ve seen both live. I think the music stands for itself, and the fleet foxes might have been the most enjoyable concert ive seen.

  • Anonymous

    couldnt agree more….saw bon iver at bonnaroo front rail…..worst mistake of my life.