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.