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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

February 1, 2011 at 11:57 AM

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Labor watch: Fleet Foxes versus The Head and the Heart

Posted by Andrew Matson

Photos & not-pro editing by me

"Down in the Valley" by The Head and the Heart

"Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes (download here)

I don't mean to go off on a rant here, but I've been paying attention to how two of Seattle's premier neo-rustic folk-pop acts deal with themes of manual labor in their art: Fleet Foxes and The Head and the Heart, both signed to Sub Pop.

At first they seemed at odds with each other. Now I don't know. Peep, if you will, my train of thought:

Last year I heard the song "Down in the Valley" by The Head the the Heart, which includes the lyric, "I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade / like riding around on rail cars and working long days."

To me, the line recalled and stood in direct opposition to something printed in Fleet Foxes' 2008 liner notes:

"It's not good to romanticize a time of great hardship, hardship I've never known and am not conditioned to understand."

Jokingly credited to Thomas Jefferson, the notes match the writing style of Foxes leader Robin Pecknold, accompany his group's debut double-packaged vinyl album/EP, and are written like a formal statement of artistic intent.

Warring sentiments, right?

Yesterday the plot thickened when Sub Pop made a new (beautiful) Fleet Foxes song available for download, "Helplessness Blues." Note these lyrics toward the end:

"If I had an orchard, I'd work 'til I'm raw / if I had an orchard I'd work 'til I'm sore [...] and you would wait tables and sing 'round the store / gold hair in the sunlight."

The middle part is repeated several times: "If I had an orchard, I'd work 'til I'm sore."

Pecknold sings it with the other Foxes in glorious interwoven vocal harmony. He sings it solo. The image is apparently supposed to stick, and it does, and by my interpretation, the vibe is pointedly not, "Oh, God, no...not another day in the fields," but more, "Ah, yes. Simple times."

Now, I'm not saying these songs romanticize slavery. But I think they're both partly about being in love with the idea of manual labor.

Granted: "Helplessness Blues" doesn't strictly contradict Fleet Foxes' 2008 liner notes, because Pecknold isn't necessarily singing about "a time of great hardship." He sings the orchard bit from the hypothetical perspective of an orchard owner, not employee, and the character might be picking fruit for some personal reason other than earning a wage.

A few more caveats: I'm aware humans are free to change their minds, believe one thing one day, another thing the next. And I'm aware we, listeners and fans, don't need musicians to tell us how to live, and lyrics and liner notes ought not be interpreted literally, no matter how direct and manifesto-ish they seem. And as a white, suburban, middle-class university graduate, I care a little too much about class issues. So this whole discrepancy might well be only in my head, or meaningless.

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