Big Thief
Two Hands


3.0
good

Review

by JohnnyoftheWell CONTRIBUTOR (104 Reviews)
November 13th, 2019 | 29 replies


Release Date: 10/11/2019 | Tracklist

Review Summary: A deceptively immediate angle from a band as disinclined as ever to show their full hand.

Big Thief’s first 2019 release, U.F.O.F., had something special going for it. I wouldn’t personally call it a great record, but it stands as an unusual case of a successful album that attracted near-universal acknowledgment for its best qualities while dividing opinions over how far they actually carried the record. Casual listeners established a soft consensus of excellence for songs like Cattails and Contact, keener listeners cottoned onto Jenni and Terminal Paradise, the die-hards were sticking it out over From and Century, and everyone, absolutely everyone was swooning over the title track. Whether it was something that only surfaced on specific tracks or ran compellingly through the whole album, the mystery and fragility than the band tapped into on U.F.O.F. made it hard to deny that they had an enviable distinctive edge. It made discussion about the album’s finer points just as much a frustrating tangle of vague adjectives (and adjectives of vagueness) as it was an exciting challenge to pin down exactly what made them sound the way they did. That record was thoroughly ambiguous, and the band seemed to thrive off it for better or worse.

Since it took more than a few months after U.F.O.F.'s release for such discussions to simmer down, allow me to spare you the trouble for Big Thief’s follow-up record: Two Hands is a straightforward indie album articulated in the mixed vocabulary of rock and folk that will sound more or less interchangeable with many other indie folk/rock records you’ll have doubtless heard this year (or any other year). It’s competently composed and performed, equal parts unpretentious and unambitious and altogether Quite Good, but whereas U.F.O.F. somehow managed to ace the debate over whether or not it was a worthwhile listen before discussion of whether or not it was a good album had even started, Two Hands is very much the other way round. This has less to do with the quality of writing than it does with the means of performance; the relatively direct attitude that drives this album leaves little space for many of the qualities that made Big Thief intriguing to begin with. The band’s switch from acoustic-dominated arrangements full of cyclical, evasive arpeggios to a more upfront indie rock sound backed up by gentle overdrive is all very well, but it forces star player Adrianne Lenker to keep her voice at an intensity prohibitive to the understated dynamic range that she explored so throughly on U.F.O.F.. That’s not say she can’t hold her own over rock songs; her inflection hints at urgency and desperation without ever allowing compromising her trademark clear delivery, but the nuance of these facets feels somewhat crushed and there’s very little on offer here that can’t be easily supplemented with choice cuts from Mazzy Star, Yo La Tengo, Fleet Foxes or even mid-90s Flaming Lips. This would hardly be the end of the world for most groups, but it’s somewhat damning for a band who within recent memory seemed cut out for a niche strictly of their own making.

This is by no means a token to write off these tracks: there’s a lot of enjoyable material on offer here, much of which benefits from the band’s chosen style. Early highlight Forgotten Eyes is more or less the perfect average of all this album’s strengths, playing out with a cheery rock swing paired movingly with its portrayal of urban homelessness. The way lines like “no crying but it is no less a tear/on the common cheek with which we smile” are delivered like an approximation of a warm-hearted singalong is textbook of Big Thief’s knack for slipping unobtrusively under their listener’s guard. Later on, Shoulders follows in a similar vein as it maps out a stomach-churning account domestic violence that subverts the bright overtones of its full-bodied rock foundation to devastating effect. Lenker’s performance here feels entirely appropriate for both style and content, and it would be a disservice to expect her near-howl of “the blood of the man/who's killing our mother with his hands/is in me, it's in me, in my veins” to sound any less accusatory and intense. These songs both resonate with the forceful importance they seem to shoot for and can be chalked up as the template of what Two Hands is all about.

At the other end of things is the beautiful Wolf, which feels similarly direct in its simplicity but tones down the album’s indie rock stylings to explore the pastoral dimensions touched upon by U.F.O.F. even further. Equal parts lullaby and daydream, this song offers a straightforward, stripped down charm that seems as timeless and lovely as any whimsical folk song of its kind. The title track and Replaced take decent shots at hitting the same airiness and mid-tempo warmth respectively, but neither are nearly as compelling or memorable. The title track uses the band’s trademark clear-toned ascending arpeggios and breathy vocals to give the impression of stretching for something just out of reach, but the same stakes and intrigue as past efforts of this kind don’t crop up the same way, while Replaced is a comfortable groove that prioritises a sustained mood over standalone hooks but does very little to distinguish itself from your middle-of-the-road Mazzy Star track beyond a slight folky flourish.

Immemorability, unfortunately, is something of a recurring theme here, stripping some of charm out of the bookending tracks Rock and Sing and Cut My Hair to the effect that the album as a whole acquires many of the adverse qualities of the daydreamy ambience that U.F.O.F. embraced, even as many of the songs here seek to eschew it. And that’s before we get to the fact that, beyond the scope of innocuous immemorability, certain songs here are a slog to get through. Big Thief seem to have something of a comfort zone at the low side of the tempo spectrum, but it does them no favours at points. The Toy takes the fragility that had seemed so subtle on tracks like Terminal Paradise and turns it into a homogenous traipse. It’s not necessarily a bad song, but the performance feels heavy handed by Big Thief’s standards that it comes off as steeply unimpressive. The same can be said for Those Girls, a downbeat song so short of distinguishing or engaging factors that you’d be forgiven for forgetting this is one of the album’s shorter cuts. Conversely, highlight track Not turns the pacing and urgency up a notch and comes up trumps with a gripping miniepic, crackling with overdrive that builds over Lenker’s cryptic verses into the kind of skronky guitar jam that would make peak-era Yo La Tengo grin. It’s easy to trace the popularity behind this one and it anchors the album more than adequately, although there’s a slight sense that its knockout quality and grandiose intensity and in part a product of disparity, shown up by other tracks for which far less can be said.

All in all, Two Hands will likely land squarely in the favour of those already satisfied with the band or the shape of the contemporary indie landscape, but for anyone still looking at Big Thief with raised eyebrows and questions involving the word “potential”, it represents at best a calculated sidestep away from the steep expectations that U.F.O.F. swept up in its wake, and at worst a comfortable step backwards. The band’s talent is still very much palpable here, but I can’t avoid the sense that they’ve channelled it into a style too convenient and conventional for it to shine with its full specificity. There’s a certain aptness to this; Big Thief’s charm is so shy and evasive that it would be ironically satisfying if its full scope was confined to individual moments teased within larger albums, suggested fleetingly by a band disinclined to show their full hand. I can certainly live with this, but if band’s narrative is set to revolve around stringing their audience along, I get the sense that Two Hands is far from the end of whatever they have in store for us.



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user ratings (109)
3.8
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
November 13th 2019


17541 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

103 votes and my 103th review. All is in harmony, although I find it very strange no-one had already covered this!

Score is slightly mean; this album is pretty much the definition of a low 3.3

Digging: Hakushi Hasegawa - Air Ni Ni

Sunnyvale
November 13th 2019


1233 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Nice review. I agree that this album is weaker than UFOF, but I still think this one's really nice. UFOF is top ten of the year for me.

Conmaniac
Contributing Reviewer
November 13th 2019


25015 Comments


3 or 3.5 band forever tbh. There's something about this genre that just fails to fully captivate me.

Ryus
November 13th 2019


17984 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

thats what i thought until UFOF



seems to be an outlier according to this though

Slex
Contributing Reviewer
November 13th 2019


8742 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

Johnny you asshole I hate you

Digging: Liturgy - H.A.Q.Q.

theBoneyKing
November 13th 2019


17701 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Hey at least this finally has a reivew

Digging: Cocteau Twins - Treasure

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
November 13th 2019


17541 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Slex I shit you not one of the top reasons I wrote this was so there'd be a thread for you to post that :]

Slex
Contributing Reviewer
November 13th 2019


8742 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

U know my heart

Sunnyvale
November 13th 2019


1233 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Tracks 2 through 4 are fantastic

MiloRuggles
November 14th 2019


149 Comments


Wow, this didn't have a review yet.

Very nice work, one of those reviews I'm predisposed to like as I entirely agree with your take on this thing. Two does absolutely fucking rip though

BlushfulHippocrene
Staff Reviewer
November 14th 2019


3099 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

This is definitely their anti-UFO, which I think is admirable. The two singles and the last stretch are some of their best songs, I believe. Don't agree largely, but very nicely written review.

Digging: Keaton Henson - Six Lethargies

DoofDoof
November 14th 2019


6310 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

this album was a bit unnecessary, seems regressive, took the band out of the 'exciting to see where they go next' box they'd climbed into after UFOF and returned them to the 'they're alright, low priority to check' pile

Cormano
November 14th 2019


1685 Comments


I love Wolf

Also I think Capacity is still their best, band has always been exciting

tectactoe
November 14th 2019


1669 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

#TeamTwoHands checking in

UFOF was great, too, but this is totally my speed

Digging: Great Grandpa - Four of Arrows

luci
November 14th 2019


11970 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0 | Sound Off

"took the band out of the 'exciting to see where they go next' box"

it's a sister record released in the same year. save this judgement for their actual follow-up

anatelier
November 14th 2019


2920 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I for one am still excited to see where this lot go next, sure if they skipped UFOF and went straight to Two Hands I probably wouldn't see them as a must-listen, but then UFOF provides a bit of pretext for what they followed up with. And I don't care what anyone else says, Not is just an all-timer even after dozens of back-to-back listens

DoofDoof
November 14th 2019


6310 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

dunno, UFOF was a gnat's whisker away from me awarding it a 5...so if this hadn't have dropped I would have been wondering if next time they'd find that last certain something



now with this being released and effectively sounding a lot like how they used to sound ('Not' is a little different maybe) and slotting back into the 3.5 rating bracket - I'm no longer anticipating a 4.5+ release next time, just how I feel



of course they could yet prove me wrong

Tikicobra
November 15th 2019


575 Comments


This is one of those bands I really feel like I don’t “get.” I mean, “Not” is really awesome, but most of their songs I find either boring or somewhat unpleasant.

Gyromania
November 16th 2019


28945 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

I've had Rock & Swing stuck in my head for days on end. Like, in a bad way. Fuck that song

Trophycase
November 17th 2019


1828 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Not sure how this is disappointing. Forgotten Eyes, Not, and Shoulders are all incredible songs and the rest is quite good as well.



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