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Fleet Foxes: the new buzz on Seattle's softer side 

Wednesday, Jun 25 2008
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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.

About The Author

Michael D. Ayers

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  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

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