Three recent albums – a solo album by Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, enthralling with just voice and guitar. An archival release from Americana legend Gillian Welch, covering the first volume of 48 songs she recorded in one weekend in 2016. And the third album in three years from pop/R&B superstar Ariana Grande.
Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker has made solo albums before – she released Stages of the Sun as a 15 year old, with a disconcertingly glossy cover, and also released Hours Were The Birds in 2013 and Abysskiss in 2018. Songs, released in a joint package with Instrumentals, follows in the wake of a breakout year in 2019 for Big Thief, with U.F.O.F. and Two Hands both receiving acclaim.
Where U.F.O.F. in particular was a dense record that took time to appreciate, Songs is pared down to just Lenker and her guitar. Lenker’s easily talented enough to carry a solo project alone – Lenker’s guitar work is distinctive and interesting. Lenker’s songwriting voice is even more distinctive – she sometimes reminds me of a female Neil Young, with a thin emotive voice and a unique perspective. Lenker’s songs always feel like she sees the world, and hears music, a little differently than everyone else, and she’s letting us on her viewpoint.
Lenker’s fascinating – she grew up in a cult, while in the interview cycle for Songs she’s discussed the dissolution of a five year marriage to Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek. She’s particularly emotionally vulnerable on ‘Not A Lot, Just Forever’, where she sings “And your dearest fantasy/Is to grow a baby in me/I could be a good mother.”
Lenker’s guitar picking and keening voice are beautiful on ‘Anything’. Most of my favourites are clustered at the end of Songs – like its predecessor ‘Not A Lot, Just Forever’, ‘Dragon Eyes’ is straightforward and emotional. Closer ‘My Angel’ is atmospheric and its sudden ending is a reminder of the rough-hewn origins of Songs. It was recorded on an 8-track tape machine in a wood cabin in Massachusetts during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lenker’s one of music’s most compelling artistic voices right now, and Songs is almos as intriguing as Big Thief’s two records last year.
Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1
It’s been a banner year for Gillian Welch fans – she’d been quiet ever since 2003’s Soul Journey, with only one subsequent studio album. In 2020, she’s already released a quarantine album of covers with partner Dave Rawlings, and she’s now released 48 songs from her archive as Boots No. 2. The release of Boots No. 2 was prompted by a tornado – in early March, the roof was torn off their recording studio, and Welch and Rawlings scrambled to save their equipment and archived recordings. The salvage process made them realise they cared for the material (Welch told Rolling Stone that “It’s one thing to know in your mind that you have these tapes, and it’s another thing to run through the dark with them in your arms, rescuing them from destruction”), and they’ve released it over three volumes during the back end of 2020.
Welch needed to deliver a prescribed number of songs by the end of 2002 to complete a publishing deal. Accordingly, all 48 songs were recorded in a single weekend in December 2002 and releasing them has almost doubled her back-catalogue. Despite the quick recording process, The Lost Songs feels apiece with most of Welch’s other material; as always it’s centred around Welch and Rawlings’ harmonies with Rawlings adding adornment, often on his 1935 Epiphone Olympic guitar.
The first sixteen songs from the archives are collected on Volume 1. ‘Johnny Dear’ immediately sets the standard high while ‘First Place Ribbon’ showcases Rawlings’ picking – his ability to provide interesting lead parts on so many tracks is key. Welch is able to tap into powerful tradition on ‘Give That Man A Road’ and ‘Mighty Good Book’. ‘Valley of Tears’, covered by Solomon Burke, is simple and graceful. The bluesy ‘Honey Baby’ features a surprisingly raw vocal, and ‘Here Come the News’ is a pretty closer.
New listeners might want to start with Revival or Time (The Revelator), but this archival release is essential for Welch fans, especially given her small discography.
I’ll planning to slip the other two volumes of Boots No. 2 quietly onto the Gillian Welch page on this site, rather than feature them in New Reviews. At the moment my impression is that Volume 2 is the strongest, with less stylistic variation than the first but a very fine set of songs. Volume 3 features some material that was later reworked for Soul Journey.
I heartily enjoyed Grande’s previous two records – she was fascinating when her lyrics focused on PTSD around the Manchester bombing and her reaction to Mac Miller’s overdose. Lyrics aren’t always the focus in pop music, but the focus on serious subject matter made for interesting songs. On Positions, Grande’s third album in little over 24 months, she reverts to more traditional R&B subject matter, chronicling the lust of a new relationship on songs like ’34+35′ and ‘Nasty’. When presented with Disney-sounding strings for the former, she opted to make lyrics as jarringly yet awkwardly dirty as possible, with lines like “Just get me them babies” and “Even though I’m wifey, you can hit it like a side chick.” The lyrical preoccupations obviously recall Dangerous Woman, but musically Positions often resembles the 1990s R&B throwbacks of her debut.
The emotional punch of the past two previous records is still present – the duet with The Weeknd on ‘Off The Table’ is low-key, focused on the pair’s vocals. The quirky string arrangements of ‘My Hair’ and ‘Love Language’ are different from anything Grande’s done before, and there’s a lovely coda on the latter. There’s plenty of accomplished R&B/pop, like the title track and the closing ‘POV’.
Positions feels a little low key after a run of block-busting albums from Grande, but it’s still an enjoyable collection of songs with few obvious weak points.
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Ariana Grande isn’t normally my cup of tea but these songs aren’t bad. I prefer the other two ladies though, good mellow out music.
Thanks for listening – the Ariana was my least favourite of the three this week, but more because the other two are very good.
Welch and Rawlings pair so nicely!
Yup, amazing they can record so much great material so quickly. 48 tracks in one weekend, all played and sung beautifully.
Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings…that is fantastic. I like the minimalist approach…it’s all you need when it sounds this good. I just listened to some more off of this.
There are 48 tracks to love – they’re very good at what they do.
I listened to 5 of them last night and have the 3 albums from youtube lined up for work.
So I need to buy all three of those Welch sets. Hot damn. And never heard of Lenker, I don’t think, but female Neil Young? INTERESTING! As for Ariana Grande, I think I need to stop thinking of her as a Starbucks order and pay attention a bit more. The only track I liked was her duet with Stevie Wonder, and that’s because STEVIE, so we’ll see how it goes.
Big Thief, Lenker’s band, are a well-loved indie act right now – I think they’re pretty amazing.
I really like Grande’s voice, she does this distinctive slurring thing that works for me.
I will dutifully check them out, thanks!
I’m still catching up with Welch. She always delivers for me. Here and Dave.
It was pretty easy keeping up with her, until she just dropped 48 new tracks…..
With me it’s all the other music I listen to. My ear does the rounds but Welch and Rawlings are on the list.
nice take on the adrianne lenker new record.
Adrianne Lenker just keeps getting better and better.
Yup, she has a pretty unique and distinctive sensibility.
I think Adrienne Lenker was my favorite, and I haven’t listened to her before – I can see what you mean about being a young female Neil Young, as she sounds like her emotions drift with the surrounding environment, always wandering for a point of permanence. In any case, her lyrics and music are very haunting and emotive.
Some songs on Big Thief’s most recent album sound like electric Crazy Horse Neil too – stuff like Not.
Big Thief were my big discovery of last year and I promptly consumed and loved their four albums. For some reason I’d put off listening to Adrianne Lenker’s album but put it on this week and it’s gorgeous
Cool – I think she’s pretty much the best and most distinctive songwriter out there right now. I haven’t gone back to Lenker’s older stuff yet.