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Originally published Friday, September 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Night Watch

Fleet Foxes sing it their way

When Phil Ek works on your demo, that is a sign — not quite manna from heaven, but a clear indicator — that you are a new band...

When Phil Ek works on your demo, that is a sign — not quite manna from heaven, but a clear indicator — that you are a new band with serious potential. Earlier this year, Ek, who as a producer helped refine the sounds of Modest Mouse and Built to Spill, mixed the six-song demo by new Seattle band Fleet Foxes. He said he was attracted by "the sophistication and complexity of the songwriting."

This young band is not just good, but different. Way, way off the beaten path.

"Folkedelic," you might call these distant relatives of psychedelic/folkers — whatever they are, they are not your typical indie rock or punk band.

How different? Well, at a recent Chop Suey show, keyboard player Casey Wescott used a tambourine on several songs — without a hint of irony. Later in that show, the band hinted at its roots, covering Neil Young's "Lotta Love."

Fleet Foxes' originals like "Anyone Who's Anyone," "Icicle Tusk" and "She Got Dressed" are seeped in a certain time period, far away from Lexus-and-condos Seattle. Instead, the Fleet Foxes seem to have stepped right out of San Francisco's Summer of Love, circa 1967.

"I grew up with absolutely hippie parents," says Robin Pecknold, the singer and songwriter. He's got a neo-hippie look himself, with shaggy, sandy hair, a string headband and scruffy beard.

"We want to be informed by the past — but not throwbacks ... We want to make sure what we do isn't reactionary."

Buy a round for the Fleet Foxes, and you might be purchasing a Kool-Aid, a green tea and a soda — that's what Pecknold, Skye Skjelset and Wescott sipped the other night at Capitol Hill's Bauhaus cafe. (Bass player Bryn Lumsden and drummer Nicholas Peterson were not present.)

Stick with nonalcoholic beverages if you're serving the Fleet Foxes, as Pecknold and Skjelset — friends since the seventh grade at Kirkland Junior High — are both 20.

The two are given to youthful, silly asides, yet they are musically mature, with a polish and confidence gained over long hours at a Belltown rehearsal studio. On the walls of a rented practice space, the band members glued records: Buffalo Springfield, Joni Mitchell, the Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, Beatles ...

"I'll point at a Crosby, Stills & Nash record," Pecknold says, "and say, 'Can you be more like that?' "

The Fleet Foxes have a nice sound, to be sure, but there is more here than gently reverberating echoes of surf guitar and folk-rock arrangements. Singer Pecknold is also a surprisingly evolved writer, creating grab-you-by-the-throat imagery. Again, the emphasis on songwriting is what separates the Fleet Foxes from the pack (so many good-sounding bands around Seattle don't seem to have much to say).

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Pecknold treats writing as a job, setting aside a few hours a day to do it: "I try to write a song, or at least part of a song, every day." He will sometimes shock his bandmates by showing up at a practice with three or four new, completed songs — polished material that flows easily.

He tends to write mysterious lyrics, a mixture of nostalgic, expressionistic portraits, interspersed with jaded, urban snapshots:

"I'm not responsible for

The reputation of

the neighborhood whore"

"I could never know what the dead man sees"

"it's so much better in the sunlight, I'm just a little mirage"

"Anyone Who's Anyone," in particular, underscores Pecknold's ability to change speeds, exploring several moods in close proximity; Fleet Foxes' songs often begin in one emotion, and end in another, leaving passion for depression, or starting in anger and ending in wistfulness.

Like Isaac Brock, Ben Gibbard, Damien Jurado, Jeremy Enigk and others who have gone before him, Pecknold is writing well-crafted pop songs at an early age. Will his potential develop, as that of the others has?

The challenge, Fleet Foxes recognize, is now to figure out how to record a first album that fully captures Pecknold's ideas. "We've got these great tunes from Robin," Wescott says, "now how are we going to maximize everyone to do them justice?"

Fleet Foxes perform at Fremont's Oktoberfest at 4 p.m. on Saturday.

With Crocodile Café booking man Pete Greenberg putting together the music, this Oktoberfest has an exciting lineup of Seattle/Northwest music: Portland psych-pop duo Viva Voce (8 p.m. Saturday), the rowdy pop girls of the Catch (2 p.m. Saturday), Aqueduct (9 p.m. Saturday), bluegrass diva Anna Coogan (7 p.m. today), local hip-hop act Cancer Rising (6 p.m. Saturday) and thundering duo the Helio Sequence (10 p.m. Saturday).

Viva Voce and Aqueduct are on Barsuk Records; Helio Sequence is a Sub Pop act — the two Seattle record labels may soon be battling to sign Fleet Foxes.

The music starts today (5 p.m. to midnight) and continues Saturday (11 a.m. to midnight) and Sunday (11 a.m. to 6 p.m.). The music is free, but there is a $15 charge to enter a beer garden. For full schedule and more info, visit www.fremontoktoberfest.com.

Tom Scanlon: tscanlon@seattletimes.com

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