Of course, Masterpiece is Big Thief’s debut in the most nitpickingly technical sense. Compelling lead vocalist Adrianne Lenker has released two solo albums in the past four years, and she and Big Thief guitarist/collaborator/husband Buck Meek have recorded a pair of releases as Buck and Anne (Lenker’s bittersweet Hours Were the Birds, which she has called “Folk/Metal,” and B&A’s sparse and heartbreakingly beautiful companion pieces). The most significant difference between that body of work and Big Thief’s Masterpiece — they cannot be tired of reading that phrase — is simply a matter of volume and density, as Lenker and Meek’s previous output clearly toes a more traditionally stripped back Folk line while Big Thief sonically lives up to its first name.
And yet, even as Meek and Lenker dial up the guitar intensity to Crazy Horse distortion/feedback levels that would make Danny Whitten smile from the great beyond, Lenker maintains the disquieting and sometimes disturbing lyrical intimacy that so eloquently distinguishes her earlier work. Take the title track, for instance; Lenker delivers lines like “This place smells like piss and beer, can you get me out?” with a voice that perfectly walks the wire between vulnerability and defiance — think Erika Wennerstrom or Lisa Walker at their most quietly passionate — while she, Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia craft a thunderous soundtrack that sounds as though they’re playing instruments that were forged on Mt. Olympus and smuggled out by an Indie Rock Prometheus. “Real Love” is another powerhouse, as Lenker compares the title emotion to some of life’s most horrible experiences, all set to a dissonant and chaotic musical hailstorm.
Even at its most serene, Masterpiece is a roiling cauldron of blistering Folk Rock, and the most unnerving fact of all may be that they captured this maelstrom in a studio. So what happens when Big Thief unleashes this beast on stage? I bet it’ll be in all the papers the next day.
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