In just three years, Big Thief have gone from complete obscurity to releasing not one, not two, but four of the strongest albums of contemporary indie folk-rock in the last decade. Their momentum shows up in cultural signals, like Stereogum’s recent, excellent cover story on the band, in the fervency of fans — who care enough to parse through two distinct albums just six months apart — and the co-sign of storied indie label, 4AD, who took over releasing their music this year for Saddle Creek, another indie label legend. It also shows up in the quality of the songwriting, as neither album feels tossed off or rushed. Both are complete works.
Back in May, the band shared their first 2019 record, U.F.O.F., to critical acclaim, and instead of resting on their laurels to bask in that, they quickly followed it up with today’s release, Two Hands, a self-described earthy counterpart to that earlier, celestial-leaning record. Arguably, it’s the balance of earthy and celestial that has propelled Big Thief to the status they’ve already achieved, but hearing them yearn toward either side of the spectrum on these twin records is a reminder that focus and intention can transform the output of any artist, let alone a whole group of them as talented as this band.
Where U.F.O.F. was shimmering, “unnerving and often thrilling” as our own Steven Hyden put it, Two Hands is even more austere; it was recorded live, raw, and unflagging, designed to be listened to in the traditional vinyl Side A/Side B format. Lenker’s vocal style is often lower, less sweet, and more piercing on this newer project, abandoning some of the thin and silvery whisper-sung style that defined U.F.O.F.. Instead, on songs like the album standout “Forgotten Eyes,” and album closer “Cut My Hair,” she’s dwelling in the deep, rich end of her alto, evoking earth with a more grounded singing style.
Between 2016’s debut, Masterpiece, and the quick 2017 follow-up, Capacity, the band’s touring schedule ramped up very rapidly, and if the number of live shows they’ve played together shone through on U.F.O.F., it’s even more clear here, where some of their live cues and nods to one another are caught on tape, and sewn into the fabric of the album. On “The Toy,” Lenker sings of the horror of mass shootings at schools, on the album’s title track, she lifts back into her higher register to reflect on a connection that’s now diminished. Similarly, lead single “Not” runs a bit darker, ruminating on a list of things that aren’t what matters, reeling through these bittersweet assertions with pronounced aggression.
With a frontwoman as compelling as Adrianne Lenker, it’s tempting to view her bandmates as touring members bringing Lenker’s songs to life, and part of the setup of Two Hands dispels that idea, by taking the listener inside their deeply collaborative recording process. Whether it’s the drum count-in on “Shoulders” or the careful, honeyed guitar work and Meek’s golden harmonies on “Replaced,” every facet of the band comes together with equal weight on Two Hands, returning focus to their sweetly simple interplay — the kind of connection that drives them to four albums in three years.
All this prolificness isn’t even confined to their output as a unit, either: guitarist Buck Meek and frontwoman Adrianne Lenker each released a solo record last year. Lenker’s abysskiss (also out on Saddle Creek) was actually her second album on her own, while Meek’s self-titled country-leaning solo debut let him expand beyond the tighter confines of Big Thief into country, Texas territory (Lenker and Meek both worked on each other’s solo work, too). And though bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia haven’t released their own solo albums (yet), their presence as the backbone of Big Thief becomes more pronounced on every album, especially as solo records flit through for contrast, revealing the chemistry and groove this unit of four are able to achieve together.
There is one genre where it isn’t uncommon to drop multiple releases throughout the year, and perhaps by adapting to the most popular and commercially successful area of the industry right now, hip-hop, Big Thief are revealing how they’ve evolved past their indie-rock roots; they are basing their choices off the current era instead of nostalgically looking backwards toward a past that’s receding. Even when they draw on tradition or tap into the past, Big Thief’s obvious respect and excitement about creating in the present time is part of what makes their work so compelling. Whatever else they may be, this band is decidedly a product of their own time.
Two Hands is out now via 4AD. Get it here.