[sic] Magazine

Big Thief – Masterpiece

Back in the 90s the Oberst brothers, Mike Mogis and Robb Nansel created something special in Saddle Creek Records. The label would, of course, blossom at the tail end of the decade and on into early 00s, spawning a hot run of releases from the likes of Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint during that time. Since then, a few hits aside however, their signature sound has become a little overly countrified for many tastes, its twang a little overly refined perhaps too. Hop Along’s break-out LP Painted Shut was just the shot to the arm the venerable stable needed then last year. It was passionate, intimate and abrasive enough to scuff off any unwelcome sheen.

Proving Painted Shut was no exception, Big Thief’s likeable debut now fans the flame of this most welcome renaissance. Vulnerable yet defiant, Masterpiece might seem somewhat hyperbolic as a title choice (it’s the second album of the year to adopt it, too, after Sheer Agony earlier went tongue-in-cheek on the matter), but Adrianne Lenker’s words are all too carefully chosen for this to be taken as any sort of misplaced braggadocio. No, hers is a “masterpiece of existence”, one in thrall with the cycles of love and loss, life and inevitable death – the sort of masterpiece in which the hero dies at the end.

Whilst the album is undeniably steeped in catharsis – second single “Real Love”, for example, weds disappointment to desire, Lenker charting the emotional map with dramatically unstable high notes – it never feels miserable. Lenker’s defiance is actually quite uplifting, her folky whisper sad but tearless throughout. Her spindly guitar melodies, too, spin dewy webs, her pretty frostiness stepping up when required into the relatively beefy Waxahatchee, Torres, Jenny Lewis roots style.

Lenker plays both the hopelessly romantic singer-songwriter and the nearly-pop princess as well – “Animals” threatens more than it delivers in this fashion, but its tumble of complimentary guitar parts shows wonderfully glittery restraint all the same. Lenker grows visibly as Masterpiece progresses. The intimate hum of the opener creaks and crackles and, later, “Paul” is similarly minimal in construct, but it comes bolstered with unobtrusive percussion, a melodic lullaby with a slightly saucy chorus that literally sounds like it’s delivered with a smile.

Songs like these become songs like “Velvet Ring”. A carefully plucked ditty, its jaunty corners are smoothed off by a honeyed vocal despite brief passages of ambience and squeaky field capture. And then there’s the title track itself, a heavy-hearted swell partly reminiscent of Rilo Kiley, so too an aching beauty that brings confirmed fan Sharon Van Etten to mind. Plugged in on this occasion, all eyes are nevertheless on Lenker as she steers the classy arrangement home – a track and an album that’s found the perfect one in Saddle Creek.

Best track: “Masterpiece”

~Masterpiece will be released May 27th 2016 via Saddle Creek.~