Fleet Foxes were overwhelmed when they stepped onto the stage of the El Rey Theater Monday night. “Gosh,” frontman Robin Pecknold told the eager, sold-out house, “this is the most impressive place we’ve ever played.” As he enthused over the chandeliers, sconces and crowd size, it would have been easy to write off the Seattle-area quintet as a bunch of rubes. But once they started their hourlong perf with the gorgeous, a cappella four-part harmonies of “Sun Giant,” and the tricky key and time-signature changes of the music that followed, it becomes apparent that these Foxes are not just fleet but sly.
They hide it under a moody rusticity — their set (mostly drawn from their self-titled Sub Pop debut) abounds with bucolic images of quivering forests, frozen rivers and meadowlarks, while the band, with their lank hair and beards, look like mountain men as they joke about smelling like dirt and carrots. But death is never far from the surface. In “White Winter Hymnal,” blood turns the “white snow red as strawberries in summer,” and the title character in “Oliver James” is a child found dead, floating in a river.
The arrangements tell a different story — imagine Brian Wilson arranging Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, with touches of the motets of Thomas Tallis. Pecknold’s voice can at times take on the frail wobble of Neil Young, especially on his solo turn, a cover of Judee Sill’s “Crayon Angels.” But harmonies are Fleet Foxes’ strongest suit, and their graceful counterpoint on “Heard Them Stirring” is equal to ‘Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys. The vocals are framed by the band’s spare playing. Drummer Josh Tillman, a recent addition to the band, lays down slow patterns, and guitarist Skyler Skjelset’s tremulous leads and the keyboardist Casey Wescott move the sound toward psychedelic folk. A new song they introduced as a work in progress has them trying to expand their sonic vocabulary with a more electric, harder-edged sound.
The band is the latest to experience a meteoric rise fueled by the Internet, moving from Spaceland to selling out the El Rey for two shows in just a few months. But Fleet Foxes are the real thing, and they will continue to develop — and draw bigger auds — even after the blogs move on to the next flavor of the season.