Adrianne Lenker was already crafting full stories with little more than a few words, a guitar and a whisper; people, places and moments came into being and stayed around long after the notes had rung out. Now that a full band are backing her songs, the people feel more in focus, the places more detailed, and the moments more intense.
Her debut album as writer, guitarist and vocalist in Big Thief is a nuanced rock album that would go down gorgeously as a more familiar acoustic offering, but the communal spirit of these tracks, thanks to the contributions of other members, makes it a record that feels as though it’s sharing stories not just within these songs, but in the lines between them. The companionship brought by touring as a band can be felt throughout, no more than on the nostalgic interludes such as at the end of ‘Velvet Ring’ or ‘Interstate’, where a lo-fi tape hiss creates imaginary glimpses of home video footage in the listeners head.
On ‘Masterpiece’, Lenker teams up with her long time collaborator Buck Meek, whose expressive guitar lines are supported by Max Olearchik’s bass and James Krivchenia’s drums. Lenker’s songwriting takes full advantage of the added weight of the instrumentals. On ‘Real Love’, the sentiment that real love ‘makes your lungs black/ real love is a heart attack’ is made all the more penetrating by the scratching guitar freak-outs and thrashing drums in the song’s latter half. The band show nuance by knowing precisely when to let loose and when to show restraint. The floating ballad ‘Lorraine’ is given power through silence that fills the air when Lenker’s shaking falsetto pauses on a note. As ever, she has a gift for emphasising details and letting them speak for themselves; Lorraine’s blue eyeliner and soft burning hands feel as real as the voice that yearns for them.
‘Velvet Ring’ is another track heightened by its delicacy. With its hummed delivery and gorgeous finger-picked guitar, it inevitably calls to mind Elliott Smith; the way in which both writers can make such dramatic twists and turns within an intimate, enclosed space is impressive. While Smith was a master of melodic melancholy, Big Thief work a similar magic in a much warmer light. Even the band’s downbeat, dissonant chorus on ‘Interstate’ is made playful when contrasted with bouncy, vibrant verses where the crispness of the bass and drum shine through.
That’s not to say that the band can’t be just as successful in darker shades. Closer, ‘Parallels’, ascends upwards in a dreary melody line that becomes cathartic when the band shift into a major key. Lenker’s vocal remains cracked and vulnerable while the guitars continue to soar; it’s a closer that feels more grandiose than many of the other tracks on the album. Occasionally, some of the acoustic moments, while beautifully written and performed, feel short of breath. The rustling intro conjures the thick walls of nostalgia but it’s not the fierce opening statement the album could have begun with.
‘Masterpiece’ is a sturdy, diverse debut that grows more impressive when its stories have sunk in. Even when we’re only given a glimpse of a narrative, such as on the swaggering title track, the emotions the band conjure are complete.
‘Masterpiece’ is out now via Saddle Creek
This Big Thief review was written by Stephen Butchard, a Gigsoup contributor. Photo credit : Michael Buishas