Album Review: Big Thief – Masterpiece

By on Thursday, 26th May 2016 at 3:00 pm
 

"MasterpieceWe at TGTF have had our ears on Brooklyn indie rock band Big Thief since last autumn, when I saw them open for Here We Go Magic at the Valley Bar in Phoenix. Six months on from that show, Big Thief are quickly garnering fans from across the musical spectrum with songs from their genre-stretching debut album ‘Masterpiece’. An imaginary Venn diagram of the album might depict an intersection of alt-country, indie folk and psych rock, with ‘Masterpiece’ falling squarely in the centre.

Frontwoman and songwriter Adrianne Lenker has crafted a series of songs around what she describes as “the process of harnessing pain, loss, and love, while simultaneously letting them go, looking into your own eyes through someone else’s, and being okay with the inevitability of death.” Her constantly shifting character perspective keeps the quell of emotion inherent in those themes at a measured distance, and her bandmates (Buck Meek on guitar, Max Oleartchik on bass and Jason Burger on drums) create a discordant and disorienting sonic backdrop for her hazy existentialism.

The album’s eponymous track and lead single ‘Masterpiece’ is a full sonic realisation of Lenker’s artistic vision, with bold, round guitars, heavy drums, and a catchy chorus under the blunt desperation of her verses: “you whispered to a restless ear / can you get me out of here? / this place smells like piss and beer / can you get me out?”. Lenker’s singing voice, like her lyrics, isn’t exactly pretty, but its half-whispered, half-yodeled tone is both poignantly fragile and vividly evocative.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/oacUgWXrqwc[/youtube]

The album’s current single ‘Real Love’ was a live standout when I saw the band play on the Ground Control Touring showcase at SXSW 2016, and it’s a highlight on the full album as well. Lenker’s haunting vocal melody fluctuates between pure country (“mama got drunk and daddy went to prison”) and unadulterated realism (“riding in the back seat, watching my spit fly”), and her delicate singing is punctuated by gritty, strident rock guitar riffs.

The estranged father-daughter ballad ‘Interstate’ is somewhat lighter in texture but its sonic undertones are harshly discordant, particularly under the wistful line “you could go back in time”, which is underlaid by disorienting shifts in harmony. Lenker takes on the perspective of a sympathetic onlooker in the lyrics, “she is getting thin / you are going grey and white / and you don’t know how to tell her as you say good night”, but you get the sense throughout that she might in fact be the daughter, especially when the track fades to a child’s voice innocently chanting, “I like our truck”.

A pair of love contrasting love ballads sits at the heart of the album, the acoustic-flavoured ‘Lorraine’ and the bittersweet ‘Paul’. The former is a brief wisp of memory, perhaps of a fleeting romantic encounter that never developed into anything tangible, exemplified by the lyric “like we were hummingbirds screaming at ravens, you started to move me from fact into fable”. The latter is an edgier electric-flavoured track about another doomed love affair, this time from the opposite perspective: “I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whisky breath / I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death.”

‘Humans’ returns to the harder, harsher tones of the earlier tracks, with a distorted bass and guitar foundation under Lenker’s slurred, mumbled verse lines “humans in the honest light / love is a cold infection, right”, while a piercing guitar riff brings the repeated chorus lyric into sharp focus. Conversely, ‘Animals’ is fuzzy and obscure throughout, with shifting harmonies and tempo keeping the listener consistently off balance. Final track ‘Parallels’ features another brilliantly written verse, “caterpillar on the floor / can you teach me to transform . . . I can’t say I’ll miss my human form much” juxtaposed with a simple, relentlessly repeated chorus.

Appropriate to the title of its closing track, ‘Masterpiece’ is an album of parallels and juxtapositions. It never attempts to come full circle or to establish a definitive direction, but Adrianne Lenker’s uniquely crafted songs and distinctive vocal style nevertheless leave a lasting impression, both in live performance and on this studio recording.

7.5/10

Big Thief’s debut LP ‘Masterpiece’ is due out tomorrow, Friday the 27th of May, on Saddle Creek Records. Our previous coverage of the band is back this way.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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