Indie folk and Americana band Big Thief are based in Brooklyn, but their sound recalls the rustic feel of The Band, Gillian Welch, and Neil Young. Along with songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief’s current lineup also includes Buck Meek on guitar and backup vocals, Max Oleartchik on bass, and James Krivchenia on drums; all four members attended the Berklee College of Music.
Lenker’s a fascinating personality, and Big Thief’s backwoods sound is perhaps explained by her unusual experiences growing up; her family lived in a van after leaving a religious cult. Lenker didn’t attend high school, but won a scholarship to Berklee after winning a Susan Tedeschi scholarship for her songwriting potential. Lenker’s not a commanding front-women – her voice is thin and fractured, while her lyrics are clearly the product of a deep thinker.
I feel like I’m searching for something in music or in art, just searching for something that is completely invisible, intangible, immeasurable. But I know when I feel closer to it, it’s like this kind of magic that lets you know that magic is real, that there are things and courses that are much more vast than our small finite human experience, and that there is true connectivity among humans. Feeling the energy in a room. What does that even mean, “energy in a room”? How can we feel each other like that? And yet it feels good to get closer to that.Adrienne Lenker, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/music/big-thief-adrianne-lenker-two-hands
Big Thief have quickly released four albums since debuting with 2016’s Masterpiece, including the critically acclaimed pair of U.F.O.F. and Two Hands in 2019. Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker have also released solo records.
Big Thief Album Reviews
Before Big Thief were formed, Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek played in a duo. They recruited Meek’s old friend Max Oleartchik on bass, while the drummer on Masterpiece is Jason Burger; current drummer James Krivchenia engineered the record. With Burger on drums, Masterpiece lacks the synergistic interplay of Big Thief’s best work, and instead Burger’s thump gives the group more of a straightforward rock feel. Masterpiece was recorded at a friend’s lake house over 12 days, using Lenker’s recent purchase; her first electric guitar.
Masterpiece opens misleadingly with ‘Little Arrow’, a primitive sounding song snippet, before delivering the punchy title track. The more conventionally rocking material like ‘Interstate’ and ‘Vegas’ is clustered at the front of the record – the second half is stronger as Big Thief cover more esoteric material. ‘Paul’ is a gorgeous character sketch – it sounds like it’s addressed to an ex-lover (“I realized there was no one who could kiss away my shit”), but it actually records Lenker’s internal monologue. The closer ‘Parallels’ finds a middle ground between the record’s rock feel and the mystic Americana that Big Thief excel at.
Masterpiece isn’t quite what it claims on the label, but it’s a very good debut that’s been overshadowed by the band’s phenomenal improvement.
Big Thief recruited drummer James Krivchenia for their second record – his light touch is much better suited to Lenker’s delicate vocals and songs. There are still bursts of rawness, like ‘Shark Smile’ and ‘Watering’, but Big Thief sound much more refined on Capacity. The cover of Capacity shows Lenker’s uncle holding her as a baby.
Capacity begins with Lenker performing solo on ‘Pretty Things’. Like Masterpiece, the noisier songs are clustered towards the start, and the standouts are the gentler songs near the end. ‘Mythological Beauty’ is deeply autobiographical, Lenker recalling her early life; “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eyes/I was just five and you were twenty-seven/Praying “don’t let my baby die.” ‘Mary’ is even more fragile, with Lenker’s pretty melody supported by gentle piano.
Capacity is a significant step forward from Masterpiece, the band’s more delicate touch showcasing Lenker’s songs.
The whisper of haunted Americana has always been present on Big Thief’s records, but it’s more prominent on their third record. U.F.O.F. was recorded in a damp log cabin in Washington State, and it captures The Band’s aura of old time Americana and taps into the mystic folk aura of Van Morrison’s early solo records. Lenker’s haunting, near-whispering voice is reminiscent of Marianne Faithfull, and it carries gravitas. She’s often a detached observer, like this couplet from standout track ‘Cattails’.
Violet’s eyes, Violet plays
Going back home to the Great Lakes
Where the cattail sways
With the lonesome loon
Riding that train in late June
‘Cattails’ is performed by only half the band – Lenker accompanies herself adeptly on 12-string guitar, with only Krivchenia’s splashy drums for backup. Opener ‘Contact’ ratchets up from U.F.O.F.‘s introspective indie-folk into an intense coda of guitar riffing and screaming. More often the band sticks to introspective, mystic folk – the final F. in U.F.O.F. stands for friend.
It’s not the most immediate album, but U.F.O.F. is stunning, a record of almost limitless depth and character.
Big Thief started recording Two Hands five days after completing U.F.O.F.. In comparison with the mystical backwoods atmosphere of U.F.O.F., Two Hands was recorded in the Texas desert with minimal overdubs, and reflects the surroundings with a dry and crackling sound.
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. Two Hands is a more straightforward record than the band’s previous two efforts, which makes it a good place to start with Big Thief.
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.
Ten Best Big Thief Songs
Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker have recorded a bunch of solo material, as well as records as a duo. I’ve only covered Lenker’s 2020 release Songs.
Songs – Adrianne Lenker
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.
In the interview cycle for Songs Lenker’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 from 2020.
Buck Meek is best known for his work with Big Thief, playing Dave Rawlings to Adrianne Lenker’s Gillian Welch. While Welch and Lenker are quite different artists, Rawlings and Meek are much more similar, both with a laidback drawl. Lenker is the main songwriter for Big Thief, and Two Saviours is more relaxed than usual intensity. Two Saviours was recorded in New Orleans, with Meek and Big Thief producer Andrew Sarlo often capturing performances at first take. Meek’s brother Dylan plays organ.
It can be difficult to take Meek seriously – his gently rustic voice doesn’t always convey emotion effectively, and he seems most at home on trivial songs like ‘Ham on White’ (as it sounds, it’s about making a ham sandwich). The slow and mournful ‘Dream Daughter’ is lovely. Lenker receives a songwriting credit on ‘Candle’ – Meek wrote the rest of the song after she texted him the first verse.
In the hierarchy of Big Thief and its spin-offs, Meek’s a clear third behind the parent band and Lenker’s solo work, but I’m still glad that he’s making enjoyable records like Two Saviors.
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