Poor Moon Poor Moon(Sub Pop) Buy it from Insound
Side projects are almost always a tricky business to get into, especially when they are associated with a critically acclaimed band like Fleet Foxes. They usually fall into one of two categories: 1) A lesser retread of songs and sounds from the parent band or; 2) An inspired and unique work that can exist outside the pretense of the parent band. Poor Moon falls somewhere between both; hitting many of the same mistakes that side-projects often do, while still managing to climb out of many of its pitfalls with the help of some hefty musicianship.
First, the bad—one of the biggest problems with Poor Moon is lead singer Christian Wargo’s vocal delivery. It’s not that he hits any sour notes or even that his vocal melodies aren’t up to par, but his lack of enthusiasm holds the album down. Frankly, Wargo sounds like he’s bored throughout most of the album—as if expressing himself in song offers him no catharsis or joy. While I appreciate his level of musicianship and how precise he can sing a tune, he fails to emotionally connect on most tracks. This couldn’t be more apparent than on the band’s first single, Holiday. Wargo simply sounds like he’s just going through the motions, almost completely disinterested with his own lyrics. Waiting For is another track that reeks of pure ennui. The song drags on and on without a single moment of spark or fervor out of Wargo’s vocals. The song’s lyrics sum up my feelings near perfectly—“You’re so withdrawn/ far away and gone”.
However, this isn’t to say that his vocals don’t work on any of the album’s 10 tracks. On the song Heaven’s Door, Wargo’s droning passivity during the verses contrasts a relatively more emotional delivery during the chorus. Pulling Me Down is an exceptional vocal moment for Wargo—another example in which he pulls himself out of his shell a little bit. “I couldn’t keep it silent / I didn’t know sadness could be so violent,” Wargo sings with more energy driving him. This is contrasted by the chorus, which launches into a spiraling descent of deflating life-force from a tense falsetto down to Wargo’s lower vocal register.
Vocal delivery aside, the instrumentation on this album is absolutely gorgeous. As much as I wasn’t a fan of Holiday, the shimmering vibraphone harmonies, wandering mandolin lines, and gently strummed nylon-acoustic strings are tastefully arranged into a stunning backing track. The sparse arrangement on Clouds Below is stunningly affecting—Wargo lets out a cricket-like whistle that blends well with his delicately plucked acoustic guitar. It’s very clear that what Wargo may lack in enthusiasm, he easily makes up for in sheer musicality. Birds is a standout moment for Wargo’s soaring vocal harmonies—one of his key contributions to Fleet Foxes. His falsetto stands atop of his deeper chest voice in what I can only describe as an overwhelming wall-of-polyphony approach.
Poor Moon also features some brilliant piano contributions by fellow bandmate and Fleet Fox, Casey Wescott. Wescott rarely gets to open up in his work with Fleet Foxes, mostly providing organ drones and rhythmic accompaniment; however he really flexes his proficient musicianship here. His harpsichord solo on Phantom Light is highly reminiscent of George Martin’s piano solo on The Beatles’ In My Life, both in its placement and virtuosic performance. Same Way features an equally impressive piano introduction full of interesting legato slurs and punctuated rhythm. Moments like these are great examples of how phenomenally important Wescott is as a key musical backbone to both Poor Moon and Fleet Foxes.
One can’t help but sympathize with Poor Moon quite a bit on this album. The music here is pretty brilliant, but it registers closely with the sound of Fleet Foxes and will inevitably draw such comparisons from other critics and listeners. This leaves the band trapped in a weird limbo of sorts—one where they manage to satisfy the listening needs of die-hard Fleet Foxes fans, but fail to truly carve out their own unique musical identity. This isn’t to say Poor Moon doesn’t offer up some great moments—they really do—just not ones that stick with you long after the record is over.3 September, 2012 - 10:27 — Andrew Ciraulo