Music Reviews
Two Hands

Big Thief Two Hands

(4AD) Buy it from Insound Rating - 9/10

For anyone who found Big Thief’s U.F.O.F. too nuanced, ephemeral, or cerebral, the same year follow-up of Two Hands, on relative terms, is a hook to the jaw. The album is all skin, bone, and sinew—the hands of the album’s title serve to both harm and heal. Two Hands feels more of the natural progression from Masterpiece to Capacity, leaving U.F.O.F. as the shimmery, angelic cousin of the others. Most stunning is that the same band has put forth two decidedly different albums—both of them ones for the ages— in the same year. This type of rushed output while maintaining the utmost quality is supposed to be reserved for the early giants of rock n’ roll - the Creedence Clearwater Revivals, the Van Morrisons. In Two Hands, the most appropriate touchpoint is mid-‘70s Neil Young both with and without Crazy Horse.

Adrianne Lenker and her collective (Buck Meek - guitar/vocals; Max Oleartchik - bass; James Krivchenia - drums) holed up at Sonic Ranch studio in the midst of a scorching Texas summer, a summer more akin to Meek’s youth compared to the more temperate ones of Lenker’s. So it’s fitting that the scorch shows up in Meek’s Crazy Horse-styled guitar leads and the interplay with Lenker’s, but also in how her vocals are guided by emotion rather than anything schooled. Not only is the stamp of the band’s heart present all across the album, but like Young, the group finds themselves grappling with both humanity and human’s impact on the earth. Ranging from the pending loss of life on Forgotten Eyes to the violence heaped upon Mother Nature on both Shoulders and Not, Lenker cries out for reconciliation amongst us all.

Much of Two Hands is passionate and pushed to you straight through the speakers, but even in its quieter moments, Lenker’s observations cut to the core. The addict of Forgotten Eyes (“Hollow-eyed on Eddie Street”) is owed compassion, but distance is kept. Meek’s emotive guitar work speaks as plainly as Lenker’s lyric: “No crying but it is no less a tear.” But subtler still are the coupling of Wolf and Replaced, that along with The Toy, seem a pairing of ancient folk songs whose origins are long since lost to the mists, but also innate and timeless. Songs that seem no less ingrained in our fabric than the oft-covered relic Moonshiner, even though we are hearing these for the first time. The loose funkiness of Replaced, in particular—with Meek’s echoed harmonies—has a lived-in feel of being centuries old. Perhaps some of this comes from the band having honed many of these songs on the road or their live-to-tape recordings, but more likely the way they are lovingly delivered like lost classics.

As powerful as these songs are, there is no denying that some of Two Hands' most effective moments are those that cut close. Given the rapt attention and imagination that U.F.O.F. commanded, you almost feel guilty relishing some of the more direct pleasures displayed here. The title track is a cousin to Cattails from the prior album, sharing a similar percussive style. But while Cattails swayed on the hazy horizon, Two Hands is right in the room with you. Maybe the softer songs of the prior album prove superior to those here, but when any push of force is put into motion the sturdiest songs here are undeniable, as is the case here.

The most tangible moments of the album, and those that howl the most, appear in the back-to-back tracks of Shoulders and Not. As strong as the front half of the album is, it turns to magic on Shoulders. Lenker’s opening plea to “Please wake up” comes as a command not just to a lover, but to all listeners as well. It’s the type of song that connects with both mind and body, hairs standing on end as Lenker pushes to the next register—and it’s hard not let your head bob and toes tap as she decries the pillage of the earth. This leads directly to Not, which becomes a showcase for both Lenker’s most impassioned vocal, but also, the exorcised interplay between her and Meek. Meek’s harmonies nip at her heels and their intermingled soloing conveys as much emotion as Lenker’s concern for a future asteroid husk of Planet Earth—“Not the planet, not spinning” is as immediate a fear as "Fire lapping up the creek” in her telling.

Big Thief proves that it can feed your head, your heart, and your hands in equal measure. Like the musical giants of old there is nothing they can’t do, ably going from strength to strength. Two Hands serves as the band’s call to arms—an unspoken dedication to not only put forth music that matters, but also a face-forward shake of the shoulders followed by a clutching embrace. A tear for the junkie on the street and one for the planet as well. The quilled scribble of words to Moonshiner way back when resonate today as well: “The whole world is a bottle, and when the bottle gets empty, Lord it sure ain’t worth a damn.” Take it literally or take it figuratively. Either way, Two Hands is the soundtrack for desperate days where huddling close is sometimes the best answer. [Believe the Hype]