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Big Thief’s music spreads the magic of folk and rock

The Brooklyn indie quartet matches folk and rock in a unique way. With four albums in four years, this band is set to scale newer heights

Adrianne Lenker performing in Madrid in February.
Adrianne Lenker performing in Madrid in February. (Photo: Getty Images)

The one song that turned me into a fan of the indie rock band Big Thief is titled Not. Lead singer and songwriter Adrianne Lenker uses negation and ambiguity in the lyrics to craft an abstract love song where nothing is described and yet it creates deep emotional feeling. The words “not" and “nor" keep recurring in the intriguing song full of mystery—it has all the attributes for becoming an earworm, or, if not that, of being put on repeat on your playlist for quite a while.

But the lyrics (example:“Not the meat of your thigh/ Nor your spine tattoo/ Nor your shimmery eye/ Nor the wet of the dew/ It’s not the warm illusion/ Nor the crack in the plate/ Nor the breath of confusion/ Nor the starkness of slate") are just one of the things about Not that makes it such an addictive track. It’s the sudden breakout of a guitar riff in the second half of the song when folk rock transforms into a full-fledged rock anthemic jam without skipping a breath.

Big Thief’s rise has been remarkable. Lenker, 28, and her songwriting is at the heart of the Brooklyn-based quartet whose first album, Masterpiece, was released not so long ago, in 2016. It received critical acclaim. Lenker’s personal lyrics and the band’s ability to meld tuneful folk with noisy rock made Big Thief stand apart. Three albums have followed: Capacity (2017), U.F.O.F. (2019) and Two Hands (also 2019). This year, they released a single, Love In Mine, a tender folk ballad about lasting love.

There’s this thing about Big Thief: Their music can be gentle, sensitive and vulnerable, and yet also unbridled, raw and noisy, sometimes in the same song. They match folk music’s easy, storytelling format with the unrestrained energy of rock perfectly. Their most recent album, Two Hands, and the one immediately before that, U.F.O.F. (it stands for UFO Friend, incidentally) are probably the best example of that contrasting style.

U.F.O.F. is an arty folk rock album with tight precision in its music, harmonies, vocals and arrangements. Two Hands, which came out a few months later, is looser and more raw. Not, the song that got me into Big Thief, is a track on Two Hands. If U.F.O.F. felt like a carefully crafted and meticulously composed work, on Two Hands the music sounds more immediate and urgent.

That’s not to say Two Hands is ragged or lacks any of Big Thief’s signature talent. Because Two Hands is probably the band’s best work till now.

Where U.F.O.F. had a fragile, vulnerable and even otherworldly feel to it, Two Hands has a fulsome feet-firmly-on-the-ground rock feel. Guitars licks sear and the tempo is infectiously upbeat. The songs are still personal on Two Hands but the lyrics also deal with other worldly issues. On The Toy, Lenker sings about the fatal shooting of children (Children burn, faceless vapor/ ’Cause the toy in my hand is real/ Yes, the toy in my hand is real). Not is a song that is part folk and part grunge rock; and Shoulders is a startling song about violence (They found you in the morning/ The blood was on your shoulders/ They found you at the corner/ Your head was doubled over/ And the blood of the man who killed my mother with his hands).

Big Thief are a young band but with four albums in four years, they are also prolific. Their rise has been quick. Besides Lenker, there is Buck Meek (on guitar), Max Oleartchik (on bass) and James Krivchenia (on drums). All four studied at New York’s Berklee College of Music.

Soon after their debut album, they got spots on TV shows such as The Late Night Show and landed headlining gigs in the US and Europe. Lenker’s songwriting skills and vocals—sometimes vulnerable and delicate, at other times raw and impassioned—are what make Big Thief’s music unique.

That contrast is summed up by how the band describes the two releases of 2019. U.F.O.F., Big Thief have said, is their celestial album, and Two Hands is its earth twin. The two make for an interesting entry point to the band’s music: U.F.O.F. to get an experience of the ethereal artiness with which the band is capable of taking the listener on a supernatural trip; and Two Hands to get a whiff of how they are equally at ease with heavier, noisier, more down-to-earth rock.

Among the new breed of bands, Big Thief stand out for many reasons—their ability to craft perfect albums, whether delicate or intentionally raw and ragged; the seemingease with which they keep releasing albums and songs; and their rare talent for taking indie folk and rock and crafting a sound that is patently theirs. And, of course, there’s Lenker, her singing and songwriting.

But studio albums are only one side of the magic of Big Thief’s music. For a first-hand experience of how they work together as a band, there’s an invaluable video of them performing at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2016. That less-than-10-minute video shows how perfect the chemistry is among the young band’s members and how effortlessly they can change styles.

My prediction: There could be much bigger things in store for Big Thief.

The Lounge List

Five tracks from Big Thief to bookend this week

1. ‘Not’ from ‘Two Hands’

2. ‘Love In Mine’ (single)

3. ‘UFOF’ from ‘U.F.O.F.’

4. ‘Real Love’ from ‘Masterpiece’

5. ‘Pretty Things’ from ‘Capacity’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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