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Review: Big Thief Are Halfway to a Low-Strung ‘Masterpiece’

Big Thief
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: May 27, 2016
Label: Saddle Creek

“We make love and love makes us,” is how Adrianne Lenker summed up the world to Noisey in March. But she tells a grimmer story on Big Thief’s “Real Love,” which begins like one of those centerless ballads from the middle of Deerhunter’s Microcastle, and goes appropriately honky-tonk for the chorus/punchline: “Real love makes you lose blood.” It’s no wonder that her now-they’re-twangy-now-they’re-not Brooklyn outfit ended up on Saddle Creek; the real story is that Saddle Creek has bands worth talking about in 2016.

Last year, the Bright Eyes-minted label released Painted Shut, the powerhouse second album from Philadelphia howlers Hop Along, which — thanks to singer Frances Quinlan’s unpredictable careening — was one of the most memorable rock breakthroughs in some time. Lenker isn’t the room-swallowing presence that Quinlan is, but she more than makes up for it in commanding songcraft, which skews dynamic (“Animals”), dissonant (“Interstate”), and placid (“Little Arrow”) without ever changing its sepia tone. Sure, that means a drumless drone like “Randy” will captivate the inert likes of Sharon Van Etten, one of their biggest believers, especially as their debut album Masterpiece draws to its desolate close. But for six or seven winners closer to the front it makes the most of its saloon-grunge palette.

The title track doesn’t dishonor its subject matter, for one thing, swooning from chord to stunning chord just as the old friends of its lyric complain “this place smells like piss and beer.” “Masterpiece” could be about a painting trying to escape from its own frame, a meta-twist on life and art’s reflexive imitations if there ever was one. It’s followed by the equally fetching melody of “Vegas,” a moonlit march that earns its “far-off salty ocean” tears, and “Real Love” itself, which Lenker likened to tinctures — sometimes they’re medicinal and sometimes they just stink.

Masterpiece never quite improves on this impressive opening run, though the profoundly un-country guitar pretzels of “Interstate” and “Humans” give Speedy Ortiz a run for their money, and the former even ends with one of Saddle Creek’s signature found recordings, just like one of those eight-minute Conor Oberst intros. There’s also “Paul,” who does donuts with a whiskey-breathed Lenker and inspires a starry-eyed chorus on the level of Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist” before stopping itself: “I just realized there was no one who could kiss away my s**t.” And the fingerpicked “Velvet Ring” posits a flipside to “Real Love,” in which love is a “gentle thing,” especially after you’re out of money and you’ve “sold the bling.” Tying them together, the closing “Parallels” is an anthem in its own way, a reminder that the dualities of love aren’t ever too far apart. Neither are beer and piss.