New York's Big Thief,
fronted by vocalist Adrianne Lenker (an alumna of the
Berklee College of Music) and guitarist (and husband) Buck Meek,
resurrected Juliana Hatfield's confessional pop on
Masterpiece (Saddle Creek, 2016)
in songs such as Vegas and Interstate.
On the other had,
Masterpiece seems to mock the martial anthems of Neil Young, but with a much more creative guitar break by Buck Meek.
Another showcase of Meek's guitar playing is Randy, only apparently
a plain and linear ditty, and in reality inhabited by ghostly (guitar) voices.
The singer's gentle mode is instead enough to propel the
spare, plaintive Lorraine and
the waltzing country serenade Paul.
She's no torch shouter, though, as proven by Real Love.
Alas, too many songs are fillers. This should have been an EP.
Adrianne Lenker had already recorded solo albums titled
Stages of the Sun (2005) and
Then the Rain Came (2008) when she was still a teenager,
and had debuted solo in earnest with the modest
Hours Were the Birds (Saddle Creek 2014), containing
Hours Were the Birds and Lighthouse.
Big Thief's two main weapons,
the screeching guitar cacophony and the gentle country singing,
are well combined in Shark Smile, the Bruce Springsteen-esque
standout of Capacity (Saddle Creek, 2017).
The songs here try to be more melodic and to sound more intimate.
The price to pay is that the likes of Capacity and
Mythological Beauty sound too familiar, as if they were covers
of folk-rock classics.
Lenker and Meek divorced in 2018, and Meek moved to California.
Lenker's humble, acoustic solo album Abysskiss (2018) contains the original versions of Terminal Paradise and From,
two of her lyrical peaks.
That solo album marked a change also in the sound of
Big Thief, whose third album, the sedated, stripped-down
UFOF (2019), abandoned any rock ambition
to focus on Adrianne Lenker's stream of consciousness and flirtation with loneliness (the final "F" in "UFOF" stands for "friend").
Contact evokes the
gentle slocore of Mazzy Star with
floating vocals, barely acknowledged by lazy instrumentation, despite a
neurotic Neil Young-ian coda of distorted guitar and screams.
U.F.O.F. instead harkens back to
British folk-rock of the 1960s (such as Fairport Convention) via intimate US roots-rockers like the Volebeats.
Cattails is a shy country-rocker with Irish overtones.
They are a little too anemic in songs such as Open Desert but then
the lullaby Orange, basically a solo Lenker song, is
one of the most melodic moments.
The fragile psychedelic overtones of Strange and the
harsher guitar riffs of Jenni (possibly the peak of pathos) are
The album also contains new versions of Terminal Paradise and
Unfortunately, most of the focus here is on the lyrics. While they are
certainly above the average of rock music, there are plenty of great
poets out there who write much better poetry on the same topics.
The slightly more rocking Two Hands (2019) is instead a painful listen.
Too many songs are just tedious
(starting with opener Rock And Sing)
and/or poorly performed (they sound like a third-rate Fleetwood Mac cover band in Forgotten Eyes and Not, and it's not a compliment that these
are the album's standouts).
The collection certainly has more variety than ever:
the engaging rhythm and shrill Kate Bush-esque vocals of Two Hands
contrast with the melodic nocturnal folk-jazz of Those Girls,
the energy and pathos in Shoulders are the exact opposite of the
Nick Drake-ian emptiness of Wolf.
The echoes of the Byrds and Bob Dylan in Replaced hardly prepare for the whispered swoon of
Cut My Hair.
Nobody doubts the sincerity of the project, but
the lyrical values of the album really depend on how much poetry one reads.
The musical values are low to non-existent.
Lenker released two solo albums during the covid-19 pandemic.
Songs (4AD, 2020) is most elaborate solo album yet, but it doesn't take much given how humble and spare the previous ones were.
The John Denver-esque Zombie Girl,
the waltzing lullaby Heavy Focus,
the pleasantly breezy Half Return (with the most intoxicating guitar picking),
and the almost breathless Anything
are the musical highlights.
Instrumentals (4AD, 2020) contains two lengthy instrumentals in the
tradition of John Fahey. Clearly she is no
virtuoso and Music for Indigo (21:12) quickly gets tedious because
her slow, clumsy, lo-fi playing can neither engage with superhuman finger-picking nor lull with dreamy passages, although occasionally she attempts a psychedelic detour or a more traditional honky-tonking pace.
Mostly Chimes (16:12) is a confused piece where repetitive patterns meet chirping birds and chiming bells. It all sounds amateurish.