Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You hit me like a bomb in the middle of one Monday morning’s new releases listening. It grabbed my attention immediately
by Marshall Bowden
Big Thief’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You hit me like a bomb in the middle of one Monday morning’s new releases listening. It grabbed my attention immediately and it continued track after track, as I waited for the one that would not connect, but it never came. It never came because I fell in love with the idea that–I’m asking the court for some leeway here, so bear with me–this record occupies a parallel universe in my mind where The Velvet Underground record their own version of The Basement Tapes, or where The Band does murder ballads with squalling guitar feedback. Or maybe just a place where the various layers of American music history go slipping in and out of a common time stream, interacting and bumping up against each other like subway junkies at a Christmas barn dance. That’s where I found Big Thief.
As I write I contemplate “No Reason,” a song that arrives after a dozen previous tracks to offer a bittersweet flash of Alex Chilton hip pop and incorporates a flute solo. It is beautiful, its open American-ness reminds me of the wide open skies of Pat Metheney Group’s American Garage with a sweet edge. And yet the following track, “Wake Me Up To Drive” is no less haunting. Despite its use of a drum machine behind acoustic guitar and accordion, it is no less personal or intimate. The reason, of course, is songwriter and lead singer Adrianne Lenker, whose work balances folk, rock, country, and indie rock with a high level of honesty, humor, and vulnerability.
“I already died/I’m singing from the other side” sings Lenker on “Love Love Love” while Buck Meek wrings some psychedelic yet bluesy riffs from his guitar, and that doesn’t seem like hyperbole on a record that can only properly be said to be about ‘everything’ or perhaps, ‘life.’ I’ve seen Dragon compared to big, sprawling statements by other artists, like The White Album or London Calling, or those aforementioned Basement Tapes. Those comparisons are understandable, but for my money this record is perhaps more closely collated with Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. It’s about one woman’s journey through an American landscape: the record was recorded at studios in Topanga Canyon, Upstate New York, Colorado, and Arizona. It’s not that you can identify what was recorded where so much as the knowledge that being in a specific location carries with it particular associations, history, and vibes and that the way a musician performs or sings is influenced, or by all of these elements.
At times, when she’s singing harmonies with guest Matt Davidson of Twain, there is a definite shade of Emmylou Harris to her voice, or more correctly in the way she mixes her voice with Davidson’s. Other times there are glints of Leonard Cohen, or Neil Young, or Bob Dylan. The thing to notice here is that Lenker’s songwriting is up there with the greats. On Dragon she’s loosening up and letting it fly, and the result is glorious.
It takes real commitment to and belief in your material to release a double album in the digital age. Dragon treats us to twenty tracks spilled out over an hour and twenty minutes. The last album that captivated me from top to bottom and was arguably a double album was probably Exile In Guyville, clocking in at just under an hour for 18 tracks. But my energy and enthusiasm for what was coming next never flagged, and I was never disappointed. The variety of music performed by Big Thief with the occasional guest, is phenomenal, ranging from whacked out Appalachian stomp to traditional country/bluegrass to indie sonic experimentation.