Indie-folk band Big Thief started recording Two Hands five days after completing U.F.O.F. (released in May 2019). U.F.O.F. was recorded in a cabin in Washington state, and has a mystical backwoods atmosphere that recalls The Band. In comparison, Two Hands was recorded in the Texas desert with minimal overdubs, and reflects the surroundings.
Big Thief’s productivity and level of quality is astounding. Bassist Max Oleartchik has estimated that in addition to their four studio records, the band have also played more than 700 shows, phenomenal for a band that only released their first album in 2016. Guitarist Buck Meek and leader Adrianne Lenker both also released solo albums in 2018.
While U.F.O.F. was primarily acoustic, Two Hands is often based around electric instruments. The harder-edged pieces like ‘Forgotten Eyes’ and ‘Shoulders’ recall the primal energy of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Vocalist Adrianne Lenker’s thin, emotional voice recalls Young’s pinched whine, while the band’s intuitive interplay recalls Crazy Horse, even though their touch is far lighter than the Horse’s primeval stomp.
It’s particularly effective when Lenker’s voice creaks on the second track ‘Forgotten Eyes’. Her raw vocal performance is the highlight of the song, cracking on “everybody needs a home and deserves protection”.
Even more epic is ‘Not’, Lenker spitting out a series of images (“It’s not the hunger revealing/Nor the ricochet in the cave/Nor the hand that is healing/Nor the nameless grave”) before the band launches into a lengthy instrumental, showcasing Buck Meek’s guitar soloing, again reminiscent of Neil Young.
The raw rock of ‘Not’, ‘Forgotten Eyes’, and ‘Shoulders’ leave the biggest impression from Two Hands, coming after the subdued mysticism of U.F.O.F.. The intricate guitars of ‘Two Hands’ and the gentle opener ‘Rock and Sing’ would have fitted onto U.F.O.F., even though the overall sound of Two Hands is rawer and more cathartic.
U.F.O.F. and Two Hands are both high among my favourite albums of 2019. If forced to choose a favourite, I’d opt for the dense backwoods mysticism of U.F.O.F., but the sparse desert crackle of Two Hands is an excellent companion piece.