Organic and earthy, musical poetry
Two Hands, the sibling companion to February’s U.F.O.F., shares much in common with its predecessor. The same quartet of Adrianne Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik and James Krivchenia return with a set of ten sparsely adorned tracks, based largely around Lenker’s words and voice. Never a band for instrumental flourish, the album moves even farther towards minimalism. The songs focus on the verse and Lenker’s uniquely vulnerable voice, while the accompaniment rarely serves as more than support in spite of their warm, analog fullness.
The band sets the mood for the album by opening with the gentle “Rock and Sing.” Equal parts lullaby and morbid fairy tale, the tune floats along a bed of soft, restrained drums, while Meek’s guitar occasionally harmonizes with the vocals. Melodically, the song exudes comfort and safety in contrast to the verses that are filled with uneasy references to death, fear and instability. “Forgotten Eyes” expands sonically from the outset with more prominent drums and overdriven guitar. An uptempo tune, the instruments are turned up in a way that allows them to breathe without overwhelming the lyrics.
Like the opening song, “The Toy” paints a melancholy picture. Meek occasionally harmonizes with Lenker’s dulcet voice and his pleasant, reverberated guitar lightens the mood a bit, but the dark lyrics poke through any optimism. “Two Hands” pushes back against the gloom with spry guitar progressions and airy vocals. A thankful love song built around a great chorus, it is the happiest track of the collection. The band takes advantage of the feeling and includes a buzzy instrumental solo that is difficult to describe and would be out of place on any other of the album’s songs.
Big Thief strings together a diverse trio of tracks near the end of the set, creating the album’s highwater mark. Beginning with “Not,” the group adopts a more aggressive tone as Lenker fills nearly every moment with her prose. Chunky, grinding guitar chords add to the driving sense of urgency that leads up to an emotional break. The rising anger of the vocals crescendos before allowing Meek and company the final three minutes of the song. Distorted guitar lines stab out from the music, pushing the angst into overdrive. “Wolf” completely reverses course, opening with earthy-sounding, finger-picked guitar. Unease still manages to creep in with Lenker’s eerie vocalizations and violent images like, “When she holds me in her jaw/ all the blood dripping.”
“Replaced” climbs out of the mire with a relaxed drum cadence and reverb-washed guitar. Oleartchik’s round, colorful, ascending bass line leads into the album’s best chorus. The casual vocal harmonies and a brief guitar solo make for a pleasant respite from a rather heavy collection of songs. Even the forward-looking lyrics convey a sense of optimism and promise. Along with “Two Hands,” it is the strongest number of the set.
Big Thief is an interesting outfit. With so much of the material carrying Lenker’s distinct signature, it might be tempting to consider the other three members ancillary. However, Two Hands would not succeed without the remaining members’ contributions. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine Meek, Oleartchik and Krivchenia sounding as raw and confident without the poetry and voice that Lenker provides. Two Hands highlights this fortunate teaming of abilities and artistic sense while remaining grounded and organic sounding. Dark and brooding at times, but rich with sound, it is a good listen.