So everyone loves the new Fleet Foxes record. (Except NME: “Fleet Foxes suck. They’re the soy-latte house band of Starbucks.”) I can’t say that I’ve listened to it (Helplessness Blues) enough to form an opinion (and I don’t get paid for that, like real reviewers do, so there’s no incentive here to rush it.) What I CAN say is that track eight, “Lorelai,” owes-a-debt-to or is written-in-the-tradition-of or strongly-resembles another rather recognizable rock song that in turn already invokes another.
For all the references to the ‘60s and ‘70s that this album is eliciting from critics, it’s (rightly) more likely to be compared to CSN(Y) and the Beach Boys than Bob Dylan or the Beatles. Fleet Foxes singer, Robin Pecknold, is getting a lot of credit for conjuring some rock ghosts/gods without ripping them off. But never so cleverly as in “Lorelai.” The track pays homage to another tune which is itself somewhat of a tribute. “Lorelai” honors Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around” off Blonde on Blonde (1966) that references the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” off Rubber Soul (1965.)
You already know that in the mid ‘60s, Dylan and Lennon were the emergent songwriting genius/gods of that (and every) generation. The Beatles probably inspired Dylan to go electric and Dylan definitely drove Lennon to be taken seriously as a lyricist (and activist. Of course, Dylan’s spent the rest of his career distancing himself from the folky lefty hippies to whom he owes his initial fame, if nothing else. Dowd’s still bitter.)
Anyway, “Norwegian Wood…” marks the first great Beatles song with impressive lyrics. (You can only rhyme “true” and “you” so many times…. sooooooo many times! i.e. “If I Fell,” “You Like Me Too Much,” “All My Loving,” “For Your Blue,” “Love me do,” etc.) Maybe “4th Time…” was Dylan’s jab at Lennon. (Lennon was sure of it.) Maybe it was just a good-humored acknowledgement that the two songwriters would be compared—like the Dylan (and Petty) penned Traveling Wilburys tune “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” that references the Boss (regarded as a neo-Dylan.) (Lennon would also be convinced that “4th Time…” was more along these lines.) What we can say for sure is that these two songs (“4th Time…” and “Nor…Wood”) are definitely connected sonically, iconically, and maybe ironically. And now the Fleet Foxes and ‘knock knock knockin’. ‘
“Lorelai” takes the groove, the feel of the riff, and the vocal melody and rhythm right from Dylan’s “4th Time…” (and in turn “Norwegian Wood”) and similarly even relies on what sounds like a key change for the chorus. And like “4th Time..” “Lorelai” breaks with its predecessors in the choruses. The second halves of lines drift off into Fleet Foxes originality but an originality they’d already tapped for “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song.” (i.e. ‘when she said don’t waste your words they’re just lies…does the body [die]’.) Admittedly, “Lorelai” really doesn’t sound all that much like “Nor..wood” itself. But “Lorelai” sounds much more like “4th Time…” than “4th Time..” sounds like “Norwood.” And, since it’s accepted that those two are enough alike to be surely equated, it’s certainly safe to include “Lorelai” in this lineage.
“4th Time…” and “Norwood” have famously similar content. Not the same for “Lorelai” (but the song is all about the old.) I guess that’s one point against an absolute and humble homage. But I’d like to think that this song shows some clever nuanced arrogance on Pecknold’s part, trying to assert himself into the saga, rather than this just being a case of ignorant lifting by an over-appreciated indie. (Dylan did/does much more extensive and blatant lifting and re-appropriating of both traditional blues and folk songs both in the public domain and belonging to particular people (plagiarism?))
Maybe indies need fact checkers. You know, maybe not enough music knowledgable people listen to this stuff before it gets released. On Mother Mother’s new album, Eureka, the chorus of the song “Baby Don’t Dance” barrows…well…is the outro of “Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles (also from 1965!) Maybe that’s homage. Maybe that’s plagiarism. I think the only thing we can say for sure is that, even if the ostensibly bottomless wells of musical creativity do ever dry up, there’s still plenty of Beatles and Bob Dylan songs to write around.
(Likewise, if a times ever comes when every combination of words in the English language has already been rhymed by some rapper or another don’t lose hope, Snoop Dogg found two ways around that: create your own languizzle where everythizzle ends the same wizzle and automatically rhymes…um…for shizzle; use the same rhymes over and over again. Or be like MCA from the Beastie Boys who, in a few places on the new record, Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, spits half a couplet and rhymes it with one of Bob Dylan’s. (Actually Dylan does this with his own songs now when he plays live).)
In an era where really everyone owes something to Bob Dylan and the Beatles—who minced no proverbial meat about their own influences—it’s nice to see some be bold about it (if inadvertently.) Certainly sampling can deserve creative credit. So I’ve got no problem with blatant inspiration. Good music is somewhere between interestingly novel and comfortingly familiar. In that case, good job Fleet Foxes.
FIY: I frequently catch slack for thinking songs sound similar.