U.F.O.F (4AD/Remote Control)
It is still not clear to me if the third album from Adrianne Lenker’s outfit is mesmerising or woozily out of shape. Then again, I don’t know that it matters as they’re not mutually exclusive states. Nor are they unattractive states.
Sounding like a stoned Fairport Convention, or maybe a more muscular Linda Perhacs, Big Thief make electric folk music that appears in half light, edging its way into your space like the last student sneaking into the back row, hoping the lecturer won’t notice.
It is acoustic and electric, with the latter mostly in undertones and atmospheres, creating an ambience which leans to blurry, the backgrounds less about distinction than mood. Likewise, the tempos are more likely to sway than to push, energised to swirl in the sun in From, maybe, almost jaunty in Strange, but mostly you would call it courtly.
The individual instruments are not always pinned to the background, to be fair, and a sudden appearance can be striking: the guitar planes are vast, opening up like a lake of ice, only to crack and crumble beneath your feet in the latter stages of Contact; they dance on the edge of the main game in the closing moments of Century; and in Jenni, the resonating walls feel like Sigur Ros building up to some cataclysmic shower of sound only to hold its large, enveloping shape.
Through most of this Lenker’s voice emerges with understated tones, whispering or so lightly stepping that it might as well be, and yet – or maybe because – you are drawn to it, craning your neck to be nearer, bending your mind to understand.
In Open Desert she sings like an exhalation of breath; through Betsy it is as if she has been hollowed out; the tremulous moments of Orange throw back a century or two; in Cattails she is more boldly defined but there’s almost diffidence in her tone, as if reluctant to over-express.
An obvious modern point of reference for Big Thief would be Philadelphia’s Espers, but apart from the fact the psychedelia is much less obvious here, Lenker does not have the clarity of Meg Baird. Then again, nor is she trying to. She is flawed and enigmatic, and that appeals.
Long before the end of U.FO.F, something does become clear about the blurry world of Big Thief. While they may be from Brooklyn, this is a band which really, really wants to be in a draughty, low-ceilinged house where the wood is piled up outside, and the morning begins under rough blankets while the shuddering pipes work their way up to spitting out chilly water.
If the windows are smeared or fogged and we on the outside can’t see exactly what is happening inside, only that life is stirring and it sounds intriguing, then so be it.