Big Thief hail from Brooklyn, but the band created their latest album Two Hands in a remote Southwest location amidst pecan orchards near the Mexican border. They recorded the songs without overdubs and mostly live vocal takes. Lead singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker’s voice dominates the proceedings because it is so odd. Her voice floats in and out of the sonic soundtracks like a ghost, sometimes in a whisper and other times in a howl. The album is truly haunting, but despite being an October release, this is no Halloween horror record.
The supernatural world presented here can be a magical one, like the place where a water creature falls passionately in love with a lupin. Consider the delicate poetics of the opening lines of “Wolf”. “Hello to the morning moon / Woke up as you left the room / Pillow still warm / Scent like meadow grass.” Most of the time, when lovers are described as wolves, the references are pejorative: a lecher or a seducer. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. As Gertrude Stein might say, “A wolf is a wolf is a wolf.” And when Lenker starts to bellow “hooo” to her lover in a siren’s voice, it comes off as a cry of pain more than one of glory. The lovers are doomed to living in two different worlds to survive; one watery, one not. The results don’t sound pretty. That’s the point. Not all fairy tales have happy endings.
The ten songs here flow together and were intentionally linked without pauses. But as previously mentioned, this is an arid record purposely made in the desert (with engineer Dom Monks and producer Andrew Sarlo). There is an audible dryness so that the sounds of drummer James Krivchenia, bassist Max Oleartchik, and guitarist Buck Meek that hang in the air and shimmer before fading. That gives the discordant riffs on songs like the punkish “Forgotten Eyes” and mournful “The Toy” an edge. Lenker sometimes expresses her pain off-key. The wounds of love hurt. The instrumentation suggests the feelings will subside with time like ripples in the soft wind.
The aridness also evokes a somewhat psychedelic paranoia on tracks such as “Rock and Sing” and “Those Girls”. The only cure seems to be physical touch. But this itself can lead to further complications. On the glorious screed “Not” that ends in a blare of electric guitar noise, crashing drums, and thumping bass notes, Lenker notes that there are no answers to life’s questions and one’s desires. There just is what is.
Sometimes, the lyrics can be a bit silly. “Cut My Hair” offers lines like “Take me to the kitchen / What are the chances / You have a scissor / Maybe a pair” in a serious tone. There are other examples of verbal excess on the record. The songs are largely unedited, and this sometimes does not work in its favor. But thankfully, this is seldom the case.
The old expression goes, “Two heads are better than one”, but as the title tune suggests, sometimes it just requires “Two Hands” to get things done. Big Thief isolated themselves in the remote desert to make this record by themselves. The results show the band wasn’t running away as much as gathering together in solidarity. The song “Two Hands” implies that the two hands don’t have to belong to the same person as much as they need to be working towards a single purpose. This record documents the truth of that philosophy.