Big Thief Embrace Their Quietly Strange Side On The Striking New Album, ‘U.F.O.F.’

Cultural Critic
05.06.19

Michael Buishas

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The “ambitious third album” is a rite of passage for aspiring legacy artists. It’s the point in the career trajectory when all cards are laid on the table, and every last chip pushed to the middle of pile. It’s Radiohead laboring over OK Computer, it’s Fiona Apple risking her livelihood to make Extraordinary Machine, it’s Kendrick Lamar unveiling To Pimp A Butterfly — you’re supposed to produce a self-conscious “masterpiece” that doesn’t just reach for greatness, but demands recognition as a mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting, era-defining masterpiece.

The indie band Big Thief might not appear at first to have that sort of hyperbolic artistic determination, even if they did name their 2016 debut, Masterpiece. The scale of Big Thief’s music has actually gone in the opposite direction over three albums, toward austerity and even near-silence.

But on Big Thief’s unnerving and often thrilling third record, U.F.O.F., one of the finest young bands in contemporary indie displays a confidence that’s unique for musicians who are eager to prove their mettle. Instead of piling on flashy guest stars, elaborate overdubs, and think-y conceptual ideas in pursuit of a capital-C classic, Big Thief has pulled back dramatically. On U.F.O.F., singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker rarely raises her voice above a stage whisper over music composed of delicately interlocking acoustic guitars and a subliminal rhythm section. It’s a risk that pays off — when Big Thief quietly seethes, it only pulls the listener in closer.

When I first heard and swiftly fell for Masterpiece, I pegged Big Thief as a vaguely alt-country-ish outfit with a penchant for Crazy Horse-style guitar squalling, leavened by the easy, laid-back camaraderie between the musicians. Lenker was a beguiling vocalist, whose surprisingly deft and elastic alto could turn on a dime from tenderness to violent aggression. But otherwise, Big Thief was a fairly straightforward rock band — a delivery device for big choruses and crunchy guitar riffs suitable for any backyard barbecue.

That album’s smoldering, over-amped sound captured how Big Thief still sounds like live, where they’ve distinguished themselves as a legitimate band-band, as opposed to a coterie of hired guns tasked with bringing Lenker’s songs to life. The interplay of Lenker and Buck Meek’s guitars, and how they tangle over the steady hum of James Krivchenia’s drums and Max Oleartchik’s bass, definitively sets Big Thief apart from the legions of indie acts that have come to prominence via Bandcamp, in lieu of developing a following on the road. (Oleartchik recently estimated that Big Thief has played around 700 shows in the past three years, making them a true throwback to what was once standard operating procedure for up-and-coming rock bands.)

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