Meek soars when not flying solo
One has many questions when an artist goes solo; one has even more when one of their bandmates follows suit. Buck Meek is the guitarist for critical darlings Big Thief, one of the few artists in recent memory to release two albums in a year with no signs of overexertion or decline. In addition, their vocalist, Adrienne Lenker, has released several solo records that trade in any rock edge for ethereal, brooding goth-folk or dazzling, emotionally raw singer-songwriter cuts on her fantastic Songs. Meek, on the other hand, went for an easy-going laidback vibe on his self-titled debut; while he’s expanded his textural palette on his sophomore release, Two Saviors, the end result is not much more invigorating, even if the guest vocalists contribute some stunning performances.
Meek did fine contributing backing vocals to Big Thief, but he does not have the presence or charisma of Lenker’s delicate, tender delivery. He’s got a twang with enough charm and authenticity, yet his froggy tone sounds like Alt-J at their most insular, and there’s nothing visceral or intense in his voice. The opening of “Ham On White” features him at his most desperate and engrossing over tense arpeggios, and yet he doesn’t rise in intensity when the song starts crackling with distortion and harsh strumming like Neutral Milk Hotel and needs a more passionate delivery. Imagining Jeff Magnum belting the repetitive final lines of “I’d do anything” instead of Meek shows the difference in power between the two and how simple lyrics can be imbued with so much more if given to the right singer.
Two Saviors is a fitting title because Meek delivers his best material with a little help. He has recruited other singers, including Adam Brisbin and Mat Davidson, for harmonies. Though they start off poorly on album opener “Pareidolia” as they feel trapped in one headphone with no room to breathe, they quickly became the best part of the album. From the triumphant cooing against the plinking piano of “Second Sight” to the lovestruck “Candle” and its watery atmospherics and pedal steel to the beautiful simplicity and warmth of the title track, each of these backing vocals brings a different vibe and feel lush and organic on a record that too often is dense to the point of claustrophobia.
While the self-titled debut had a few experimental moments, like the suddenly distorted shredding of “Cannonball” that got a sequel here, it is largely stripped back and simple. Meek understandably went for more density here, and while there are some interesting textures, songs just end up bloated without the blending to mix these songs. “Cannonball pt. 2” is the closest to a country-rock song, with heavy distortion and howling background vocals, and the constant crackling and harmonies of “Pocketknife” result in a strange, unsettling vibe and a rare moment where the record’s experiments pay off. Otherwise, the strange filtered fizz adds little to the closer “Halo Light,” songs like “Two Moons” and its sequel (“Two Moons (morning)”) often feel directionless as instruments vie for space without any of them contributing an interesting melody, and the end result is too busy to be chill and too lethargic to be experimental or an interesting sound piece. While the inclusion of other singers is a huge net positive, they can’t carry Two Saviors on their own. It seems Meek remains the less essential solo artist spun off of Big Thief.