PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Big Thief: Masterpiece (take 2)

Singer/guitarist/songwriter Adrianne Lenker dominates Big Thief's debut album, and she has enough personality to carry the whole band.

Big Thief


Label: Saddle Creek
US Release Date: 2016-05-27
UK Release Date: 2016-05-27

Big Thief’s debut album starts with “Little Arrow”, a simple vocal and guitar song by frontwoman/songwriter Adrianne Lenker. Lenker's soulful voice is by far the most compelling thing about “Little Arrow.” The guitar is barely there, just sketching in gently strummed chords, and the recording itself is one of those tinny-sounding, shitty demos that often get passed off as “raw” or “nakedly real” by low-fi enthusiasts. The track portends an album full of good vocals undermined by mediocre songwriting and bad production.

Fortunately for everyone involved with Masterpiece, it turns out that the band is just changing things up from the norm. Generally when an artist has a quiet demo that they want to put on a full album, it ends up as a low-key closing track. Big Thief did the opposite, which becomes clear as soon as the second song, “Masterpiece”, begins. This mid-tempo track is crisply produced, featuring a full band of two guitars, bass, and drums. Lenker’s voice remains the focus throughout, while the song is anchored by a catchy chorus. It also features a noisy guitar solo from Lenker, which fits well with the slightly jangly, slightly distorted guitar tone that permeates the track. Third song “Vegas” starts more quietly but quickly opens up into a more jangly, full-bodied arrangement. The best parts are the quieter passages, where drummer James Krivchenia sticks to his toms and Lenker echoes her vocal melody on the guitar.

Masterpiece has the odd quality of being an album that improves as it goes. A lot of this is due to the shaky start with “Little Arrow”, but the song construction and melodies also generally get more interesting as the album progresses. “Real Love”, the fourth track, attempts to pack all of this progression into a single song and it doesn’t quite work. The song starts off extremely spare and quiet and pushes into a chorus backed by noisy guitars and drums almost immediately. Later it builds up over an interesting bridge, briefly stops off at the chorus, and then launches into a noisy guitar solo before returning to the quiet beginning. Lenker isn’t quite done there. She launches into a coda that’s a full on Jack White-style guitar freakout, and the band eventually joins her. While this is certainly daring, the melody isn’t strong enough to really support it, so the noisiness leaves the biggest impression and subsumes the rest of the song in its wake.

It’s when Big Thief reaches the second half of the album that the songwriting begins to match their ideas. “Paul” is a slow love ballad about a relationship that is broken at the start of the song. “Oh the last time I saw Paul / I was horrible and almost let him in / but I stopped and caught the wall / and my mouth got dry so all I did was take him for a spin.” The song goes on to blame both Paul and Lenker’s narrator for perpetuating a terribly unhealthy relationship. It’s a fascinating narrative, and the band stays quiet and slow, keeping the focus on Lenker’s singing and the lyrics.

Then the band hits “Humans” and “Animals”, the most successful rockers on the record. “Humans” has a hooky guitar riff and drumbeat in the verses, leading into a catchy, driving chorus. This track also features a bombastic guitar solo, but in this case it fits in nicely with the driving beat. “Animals”, on the other hand, has loping verses driven by a simple bassline by Max Oleartchik and a complementary hi-hat rhythm from Krivchenia. The refrain finds the band doing a big tempo shift, speeding up for a full power-pop chorus before dropping back down to the lope. This is a different sound for the band and it’s very effective.

In between “Humans” and “Animals” is “Velvet Ring”, a solo Lenker song driven by strong acoustic guitar playing and highly melodic singing. Following “Animals” is “Randy”, another (mostly) solo ballad this time played on soft electric guitar. This lovely track feels personal and intimate. Both of these songs are so much more successful than the low-fi “Little Arrow” that one wonders why either one doesn’t open the album instead.

Big Thief has an assured debut record on their hands. It’s dominated by Lenker’s singing and guitar playing, but she has enough personality to carry the whole band. There are a couple of missteps here and there, but the good stuff is really accomplished. Masterpiece is full of solid, low-key indie rock with rootsy leanings and should have no trouble quickly finding an audience for Big Thief.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.