Should an album have an identifiable “sound”? Albums such as “Laughing Stock” by Talk Talk, “The Besnard Lakes Are The Last Of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings“, “Gas Food Lodging” by Green On Red or “Rock’n’Roll With The Modern Lovers” are excellent albums, with every song being sonically similar. Other albums such as “Revolver“, “The New Favorites Of Brinsley Schwarz“, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” by Drive By Truckers or “Joy Of A Toy” by Kevin Ayers display an impressive variety of musical styles. In my opinion, “stylistic cohesion” is not an attribute by which to praise or criticise an album. Big Thief’s fifth album, “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” consists of 20 songs; some of them are upbeat, some only feature vocal and acoustic guitar. Some of the songs are experimental and others sound like outtakes from “The Basement Tapes”, (as Peter suggested earlier today, in one of his many inspired analyses). The variety is appealing to me and makes it easier to get to know the album but neither variety or sonic cohesion are necessary for an excellent album. Two of the reviews of the album typify the dichotomy: James McNair of “Mojo” praised the album’s “admirable ambition” but criticized its lack of stylistic cohesion as being jarring at times. Kaelen Bell of “Exclaim!” praised the “astonishing” effectiveness of the album’s sonic diversity. What is nectar for some is poison for others.
“Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You” was recorded in four different studios. As well as a house in the Catskill mountains (see later), some of the songs were recorded in Telluride, which is 10000 feet high in the Colorado Mountains and is where Neil Young recorded his last two album, “Colorado” and “Barn”. Five Star Studios was built by Jonathan Wilson in Topanga Canyon, California and another friend, Scott McKicken has a studio in Tuscon, Arizona.
There are four permanent members of Big Thief. Max Oleartchik (bass) currrently lives in Tel Aviv and plays upright bass in a jazz band. James Krivchenia (drums and producer of the album) lives near Los Angeles and, when not playing with Big Thief, he likes to make conceptual electronica. Buck Meek (lead guitar) has released two solo albums and recently played guitar with Bob Dylan on a live stream performance. He says that he recognises that Bob Dylan is committed to capturing first-take performances and not dwelling on a song for any longer than in necessary and he likes to think that Big Thief operate in a similar way.
The songwriter and lead singer of Big Thief is Adrienne Lenker. She currently has no permanent home, spending a lot of her time touring her solo work or staying with friends or family. In October 2020, Adrienne Lenker released two solo albums simultaneously. “Songs” consisted of 11 lo-fi songs featuring her voice and an acoustic guitar. “Instrumentals” features two extended instrumental pieces, with improvised acoustic guitar and recordings of chimes and birdsong. She writes all the songs for the band and Arlo Parks and Phoebe Bridgers have cited her as an inspiration. Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek married in 2015 but divorced in 2018. Buck Meek temporarily left Big Thief and recorded a solo album called “Saviors” which expressed his heartbreak and he rejoined the band soon after.
The album was deliberately recorded in four different locations in order to provide the sonic variety that is a hallmark of the album. A total of 45 songs were recorded over a six month period in 2020. Adrienne Lenker’s productivity is astonishing. Max Oleartchik says “She can just wake up from a dream and go play a song that was in the dream“. She says “Most songs I write, I don’t understand them until later. It doesn’t really feel like I’m writing them, I feel like I’m receiving them. It’s like I’m becoming translucent, my body disappears. There’s stuff from outside of me and stuff within me and it mixes into this river and it just moves through.” This is similar to what we all saw when we saw Paul McCartney composing “Get Back” in Peter Jackson’s recent film.
In 2020, the members of Big Thief were staying at the home of some friends of theirs (Sam Evian and Hannah Cohen) in The Catskill Mountains in New York State. Luckily, the house had a recording studio attached to it but when a thunderstorm cut the power, it felt like work wasn’t going to be possible. Suddenly, James Krivchenia and Max Oleartchik heard Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek playing a song on the porch that they had not heard before. Using a battery powered speaker for the bass guitar and connecting a four track tape recorder to the battery of Sam Evian’s truck, they recorded “Certainty” in the dark.
“Promise Is A Pendulum” was sent to the other members of the band as a voice memo and they liked it so much, that they included it, unadorned on the album.
“Red Moon” was recorded in Arizona and Mat Davidson, a long time friend of the band, plays fiddle on the song, giving it a country feel. Lyrically, most songs on the album are impenetrable. This song appears to be an introspective song, in which Adrienne Lenker wonders about where she fits in. “Windmill turn and turn eventually. What do you yearn for? Where do you belong to be? I’ve been here before looking at the wild country, opening the screen door, talking with Diane Lee (that’s my grandma!!!)”
“Little Things” is more experimental which sounds to me like Kate Bush accompanied by The Velvet Underground. Having divorced from Buck Meek, Adrienne Lenker had a relationship with Inigo Sparke which ended in 2020. The words of “Little Things” appear to be inspired by the end of a relationship. “One step behind you. Following you down. I was inside you. Where are you now?”
We are nearly 15% of the way through the year and already, three magnificent albums have emerged. The eponymous album by Anais Mitchell and “Wilds” by The Soundcarriers have now been joined by “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You” by Big Thief as early contenders for album of the year. I’ve mentioned just four songs here, but every track is interesting, memorable and inventive.