Anyone buying this album back in 2008 or 2009 was faced with the question, is this band really going to be as big as the hype? The music journals had fallen for the band in a big way. The path may well have been prepared for the Foxes by the release of "The Trials of Van Occupanther" from Midlake in 2006. The reviews of that album at the time had focussed on the elements of 70's soft pop - think Fleetwood Mac - in the album. But equally as striking was the vocal harmonising which was well to the fore. Much of the time instrumentation usually from acoustic guitars, some strings, the odd synths, was kept well in the background. This wasn't a sound that was apparent anywhere else in the late noughties. In my view the 70's comparisons were slightly misleading - I don't see that much resemblance to the Mac apart from on two specific songs - and are maybe, more an attempt to explain the sound.
I wouldn't dream of saying that Foxes are directly influenced by Midlake but I suspect our ears were that bit better prepared for their harmonies a couple of years after "Van Occupanther". AllMusic makes reference to 60's artists like Dylan, Neil Young, the Zombies and the Beach Boys. Well I'm not sure if I can see all that. Certainly "White Winter Hymnal" does sound slightly as if it was composed in homage to the Beach Boys but apart from the immaculate harmonies, Beach Boy touches don't really seem to appear elsewhere. I've also seen plenty of people making comparisons to CSNY. I'd go back further, back to the Byrds. The opener "Sun it rises" brings back memories of "Notorious Byrd Brothers" and "Younger than Yesterday", both vocally and in the guitar sound. "Quiet Houses" also is somewhat Byrds like particularly the guitars but with the vocals prominent in the mix. Is this what Roger McGuinn would have sounded like if he'd managed to keep the band going?
Elsewhere I have to say that Byrd comparisons totally disappear. Songs like "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song", and "Your Protector" seem to have something ancient about them, something that goes back before what we call folk music. I can well understand the reviewer, who having heard this was folkish, rushed out to buy it, only to find that the folk club atmosphere with finger picked guitars and hands over ears is almost entirely missing - "Meadowlarks" does bear some similarity to conventional singer/songwriter material but that's about all I can see. Other songs, "Heard them Stirring" is a good example, have aspects of church music about them - this, I must add, is a field in which I have zero expertise - but I can certainly imagine the vaulting architecture, the congregation, and the choir on the side in their gowns.
Going back to those AllMusic comparisons, because comparisons are usually helpful to give you your bearings when faced with what seems like a new experience, Dylan, maybe slightly in the words but definitely not in the music; Neil Young, no; Zombies, no - this would imply something more ethereal and whatever this is it's not ethereal, the boys can be quite full blooded at times. What it actually is, is a very good set of intriguing songs, some of which are quite haunting; they're evocative but you can't always pin down what they're evoking - "Oliver James" definitely puts me in mind of something/someone but I can't think what or who.
Incidentally I would suggest that the aspect of "something old" about the album is pretty deliberate judging by the Breughel picture on the front of the sleeve plus the song listing in the rather attractive, almost ancient-looking, font. This certainly separates the Foxes album from most others on the shelves. Was this planned or was it just the media people's idea of what the sleeve should be? Could have done with some lyrics though.
A lovely album, not really sure yet if it's an all time classic but very, very good. Great songs, very well sung. Isn't that what we want?