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Music: Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes * * * * *

Difficult Second Album Syndrome may be one of the hoariest clichés in music, but it's a 'phenomenon' that has beset countless acts who found following-up an adored debut album to be a nigh-on impossible task. Think The Stone Roses (Second Coming) and The Clash (Give 'Em Enough Rope).

With a self-titled debut that's among the finest releases of the past five years, the chances of Seattle's Fleet Foxes failing to meet lofty expectations was always a possibility.

Yet, the band -- now swelled to a sextet -- have had no such difficulty. In fact, this richly absorbing, beautifully played and memorably sung collection is the most perfect album released in 2011 so far -- a timeless document that feels like a classic.

As before, everything hinges on the quite sublime vocals of Robin Pecknold, a hippy with a poet's eye for detail and a yen for the pastoral side of life. His crystal-clear voice is among the loveliest in music today and his bandmates' ability to weave close harmonies remains magical (even if said harmonies are not as flamboyant as they were on the first album).

The music is grounded at the crossroads where Americana meets West Coast pop. Crosby Stills Nash and Young is recalled, so too The Beach Boys. And, increasingly, there's the blessed-out melodies of Simon & Garfunkel in their pomp.

Like Arcade Fire's latest, this is an album that looks backwards to an idealised childhood, most pertinently on the moving title track in which Pecknold dreams of the sort of carefree future he imagined as a child (some would see fronting a lauded band as a perfect way to make a living, but the singer's idea of an idyllic existence is tending an orchard with a partner who waits tables).

Trust me, the song is so much more beautiful than that prosaic description suggests.

And then there's the WB Yeats allusion in The Shrine/An Argument -- a multi-part song that espouses the bucolic escape of The Lake Isle of Innisfree before dissolving into a discordant snatch of free-form jazz.

Burn it: Helplessness Blues; The Shrine/An Argument

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