I will be honest here, I love music. I love music with a passion that is probably unhealthy. I love music like I love my guitars and cups of tea and foggy San Francisco mornings. I love music, but I rarely listen to anything made after 1995. The day Kurt Cobain died was really the day music died for me, and there is not much that can be done about it. There are a few occasions when I hear something new, from someone new, and I break out of my comfort zone and give them a chance. Big Thief managed to do that, they put out music that made me pause Radio Ethiopia, let the Televisions boys take a rest from Marquee Moon, even stopped me wearing out my copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico, and they did it with aplomb.
Adrienne Lenker is the mistress of her own lyrics, one heck of a guitarist, and exudes a cool open honesty on stage. I might even tip over from admiration into fangirldom given half the chance. The rest of Big Thief try to keep up with her, and for the most part succeed. I am not a huge fan of Buck Meeks’ guitar work, I can see what he is trying to do, that sparse, experimental lead, but for me, he does not quite pull it off as frequently as he should do, and he never, ever should sing back up. Ever. If I was Adrienne, I’d ban him from ever opening his mouth on anything she wrote. The percussionist, James Krivchenia, (who has a solo album out I believe), is swooningly sympathetic, to the point that I wish hopelessly that I could borrow him, and see how good he could make my songs sound too. The bassist, Max Oleartchik, is as solid and funky as he should be. I dig the animal head hats, Max.
I started out at the ambitiously named Masterpiece, which opens with the deliberately lo-fi Little Arrow – , a fuzzy number that lulls you into a false sense that you might be getting some kinda Mazzy Star redux band, before launching into the vitriolic showstopper which is the eponymous Masterpiece. Lenker is not shy about opening herself and her life up, injuries physical and emotional, relationship scars, childhood brushes with death. She breathlessly tell us “there is only so much letting go you can ask someone to do.” That was the point that she grabbed me by my Keith Richards teeshirt and refused to let go, and nor did I want her to.
Real Love sears the speakers with some heavy guitar work and screaming solos that mostly work, and Adrienne again laying herself bare, pain and all, blood on the tracks for the pandemic generation. The band takes the foot off the gas on Interstate, not quite filler, but almost, guys, almost. I could do without the experiment in noise with the child’s voice declaring that “they like the truck’, it goes on just a shade too long. It just doesn’t quite gel. The track is saved by the fact that it would in fact sound good turned up loud, as you barrel along the interstate on the way to the next track, Lorraine.
The series of name tracks are the strongest on the album, we meet Lorraine, Paul and Randy. Lorraine is a fabulous ode to lesbian lust that comes on strong as Lorraine clearly did. It sounds as good as it looks, with some gorgeously affectionate acoustic guitar from Adrienne and blisteringly honestly lyrics detailing the various intimate moments of a relationship. Paul is not quite as romantic or benign, but keeps the softer edge, with some lovely chiming guitars and reverb. By this point in the album I became quite fond of our heroine, the “real tough cookie with the whiskey breath,” as she so charmingly puts it. I hope if you haven’t heard it yet, you might give it a chance to breathe some bourbon over you too.
Randy, the final in the triumvirate of name songs, is a heavily velvets influenced psychedelic number that you can fall into and not want to leave. It has the best use of the whammy bar that I have heard in 30 years. I hope she got that racoon outta her room…She asks Randy if he will “say (her) name until the night is gone,” leaving nothing but the click of the button ending the recording, charmingly left on the song instead of politely cut off. It is touches like this that kept me listening: Big Thief is real, and they want you to know it. I haven’t enjoyed trippy and dreamy this much since I found Mazzy Star in the ’90s, and Big Thief rock considerably harder than the ‘ Star ever did. Trust me, it’s a compliment.