It's been nearly 20 years since the Northwest first affected pop culture in a profound way with the explosion of grunge. While the DIY-punk spirit of the early '90s still rages through dirgy guitars and authority-bucking attitudes of rock bands making music there, Seattle has been home to a new, quieter breed of musicians in recent years. These artists are the polar opposite of grunge's dark, aggressive themes, yet are likewise loosely connected to a sound bubbling up from the region and getting attention around the globe.
Drawing on psychedelic country-folk in the vein of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, groups like Grand Archives, the Cave Singers, and Band of Horses (who formed in Seattle, but have since moved to South Carolina) have gained popularity on a national level with songwriting that explores a different side of Americana. It's not alt-country or freak-folk, but more rootsy, homespun indie rock by musicians who'll take time off from plugging in to explore softer, sparse balladry with plenty of harmonies.
Sub Pop is once again the cornerstone for the Northwest's main musical attractions. The label's latest signing, Fleet Foxes, recently released a self-titled debut that garnered high praise from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork and sent the band on a sold-out European tour. Paradoxically, the hype on the Foxes is a lot louder than their music. The group homes in on rich, warm harmonies while fixating on Americana staples: love and loss, coupled with picturesque images of rustic landscapes where "forests quiver" and the Blue Ridge Mountains are always majestic.
The quintet centers on 22-year-old songwriter Robin Pecknold. He has a lush, nasal delivery, and his depth and control are captivating. During the jangling "White Winter Hymnal," he slowly and dramatically elevates an optimistic tone of voice; in contrast, he immediately roars and soars during the country-rocker "Ragged Wood." The singer says learning vocal versatility required lots of late-night practices. "When we first started working out harmonies, it was very sobering," he says. "There was a lot of yelling, a lot of sounding like alley cats."
Fleet Foxes show a thoughtfulness far removed from ramshackle back-porch hollering. Pecknold consistently references failed relationships with a hope that reconciliation is right around the corner. In conveying his sentimentality, he's precise about his timing, hitting the high notes or bringing the song down to low registers to match the mood. Fleet Foxes have been compared to My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses because of Pecknold's voice, but they're different from both. Listen to the haunting "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" and you'll notice the Foxes' aesthetic leans toward the rustic, unconcerned with Crazy Horse amplification; they avoid the grand-scale scope their contemporaries strive for.
Even with the rising profile of his peers, Pecknold views Seattle's new crop of folksy popsters as standing on their own, free from association with the subpar acts and fashion spreads that followed the last time his city was in the spotlight. "It's not like grunge, where a lot of the bands were copycat bands," he says. "There were a glut of bands after Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and I don't feel that to be the case. It's not like everyone is looking over their shoulder. People are making the music they want to."
That may be true, but if they continue making records like their acclaimed debut, Fleet Foxes might just inspire their own musical offspring down the road.