Most artists might consider putting out one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year quite the accomplishment. In May, New York-based folk-rock band Big Thief released U.F.O.F., their third full-length album in less than three years. It features their most ambitiously produced and experimental material to date.
And just five months later, they’ve already released a new album, Two Hands, which has been described as U.F.O.F.’s “Earth Twin.”
Big Thief’s prolific output shouldn’t be surprising, since it seems they never take a break from writing songs. All of the songs from those two albums, as different as they may be, essentially came from the same batch. “We went to Topanga Canyon last year and demoed, like, 50 songs that Adrianne [Lenker, guitarist and vocalist] had,” explains guitarist Buck Meek. “And these two kind of polar feelings emerged: one being this more celestial, ethereal space, which became U.F.O.F., and this kind of cathartic, earthly, very human side of things that became Two Hands. We decided to honor those two polarities by recording two separate albums and really empowering each.”
The two albums are sonically nearly opposite from each other. Whereas U.F.O.F. featured a ton of effects and overdubbing, the songs on Two Hands are much more stripped-down and organic. “We always track the rhythm section live, with Adrianne, Max [Oleartchik, bassist] and James [Krivchenia, drummer],” explains Meek. “U.F.O.F. was, by far, the most layering we’ve ever done on top of that. We spent almost half the session adding production and layers to the basics. I did a lot of guitar layering, and Adrianne did a lot more vocal harmony stuff. Two Hands was the first record that we set the intention to do the entire thing live.”
Of course, recording live poses its own set of problems, especially in a world where studio isolation and layering tracks has become the industry standard. “We wanted it to actually feel like we were living together and not isolated in boxes,” Meek says. “And that makes it harder. . . . It’s easier to isolate everyone in their own separate rooms with glass so you can multitrack it. But it was really important for us to be together. We actually wanted to be almost touching, so we had to play really quietly.”
As a result, the songs bear a certain kind of intimacy. The album’s first single, “Not,” sounds huge, even though it’s a fairly simple, honest song. The same raw, bare-bones feeling is found on “Replaced.”
“[That’s] actually the demo,” Meek says. “We rerecorded the song at Sonic Ranch, but the demo just felt so good that we ended up using it for the album. So that’s the recording of the first time we ever played the song together as a band, essentially, having just learned it. It has this kind of dangerous, ephemeral feeling to it.”
Currently touring in support of Two Hands, Big Thief will stop at the Observatory in Santa Ana on Oct. 30. Although the band have made a habit of playing primarily new, yet-to-be-recorded material at their live shows, Meek expects they’ll perform a fair share of tracks from Two Hands.
“I think that this album in particular is a great collection of songs to play live,” he says. “That’s part of why we recorded these songs live: because they just make sense live.”
Big Thief perform with Palehound at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; observatoryoc.com. Oct. 30, 8 p.m. $25. All ages.