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Album Review: Big Thief – “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You”

When I saw the 80 minute length and massive name of the new Big Thief album, my cynicism got the best of me. A quick, near-empty black and white sketch on the cover further confuses the assuming asshole in my head: big album needs big artwork, right? I saw that large-scale magazines were ALREADY giving this album extremely high reviews before it was released to the public. I texted my friend, curious as to what could possibly be so interesting about this massive record. She responded with a quote that would define the next month: “hey man, let those pasty basement fairies do their thing.”

Lead singer Adrienne Lenker starts the album with an arbitrary statement “Ok?” 

Ok.

The intro, “Change” is a hug. A hopeful one. Maybe change isn’t a bad thing? Maybe it’s beautiful, “like the leaves, like a butterfly.” Things change and death comes. Lenker is okay with this. Maybe I am too. Shit, I am already feeling sentimental. What are you doing to me, Big Thief?

Pulling me into a warm hug surrounded by sparkly fireflies and roaming deer, Big thief also offers acceptance to a presence much more dense than mine: time. The ever-present man in a double-breasted pinstripe suit holds his pocket watch; he points at it, showing that time is constantly taking its toll on us. Big thief looks back at him – looks back at time passing – with open arms of acceptance, bringing us comfort in simplicity throughout Dragon. It can be difficult to approach heavy topics with humor, but Lenker’s lyrics read like a wise, 200-year-old being with a goofy approach to the meaninglessness of life.

As the satisfying jaw-harp bounces on “Spud Infinity,” Lenker bounces back and forth from mature topics to mundane objects, comparing our stressful skinmobiles to a simple potato Knish. Her ease doing this through the whole album is a testament to Lenker’s fluid yet sharp songwriting. 

“When I say celestial
I mean extra-terrestrial
I mean accepting the alien you’ve rejected in your own heart
When I say heart I mean finish
The last one there is a potato knish
Baking too long in the sun of spud infinity
When I say infinity I mean right now
Kiss the one you are right now
Kiss your body up and down other than your elbows”

The larger-scope, magic-infused topics near the start of the album – time, celestial bodies, death – are ambitious, but it is vital to the record that they are paired with smaller-scope, intimate affairs. After all, the celestial bodies Lenker sings of would be meaningless without the little animals that flail around beneath them.

“Certainty” could turn a cold, dark heart into grandma’s warm pie. It is one of the loveliest proclamations of feelings for another I have ever heard (“For you, I am a child, believing you lay beside me sleeping on a plane In the future”). Lenker’s country twang intensifies on this song; it is scattered throughout the album, warm and tasty like a tenderly crafted treat. This sound makes the weirdness and nostalgia on Dragon even more intimate in songs with personal stories like “Red Moon” and “Blue Lightning.” Big Thief has completely ignored how uncool country music is right now. With bro-country folks like Florida Georgia Line and Blake Shelton infesting the radios at our local grocery stores, people on first dates everywhere can commonly be heard saying: “I like every genre but country” when asked what music they’re into. It is easy to forget how satisfying a little twang can wiggle into one’s ears; past alt-country folks like Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billie made brilliant art out of their rural self-loathing, and Big Thief is carrying on the torch for country’s salvation. 

Dragon is a big, slow-cooked stew of many flavors: the base folk stylings are the braised beef, spiced with savory introspection. The indie-rock turn that the band takes in the middle of the tracklist with “Little Things” is a flowing broth of 90’s influenced, swirly walls of sound. The fairytale-like curiosity that characterizes Dragon is sprinkled in here, especially on “Blurred View,” Big Thief’s otherworldly take on trip-hop. “I am the water rise/the waterfall/filling up your eyes when you give me the call/I run for you/run for you.” It is as if Lenker reads a prophecy; her critical moment in her own fantasy, not much different from Frodo’s mythical clash with The Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings.

Eight years ago In the band’s debut album Masterpiece, an appalled Lenker proclaimed that wherever she was “smelled like piss and beer.” Dragon New Warm Mountain smells like earthy campfires and potions, and whatever elves and fairies smell like. If Dragon New Warm Mountain is a place we can picture, the latter half of the album consists of the folk tales that take place on the green spring grass here. Lenker zooms in on the beauty of real things: a laughing fox on “Promise is a Pendulum” and maple cherry leaves falling on “12,000 Lines”. Small ballads like “No Reason” give a gentle tap on the shoulder with warm, life affirming lines. 


“Come together for a moment
Look around and dissolve
Like a feeling, like a flash
Like a fallin’ eyelash on your sweater
Threading future through the past”


Lenker wears her influences on her sleeve as songs become quieter – it is easy to hear Elliott Smith here; the moments of fresh craftsmanship give a delightful spin to her sound. Drilling drum machines come out of nowhere on “Wake Me Up to Drive.” Little pokes in the instrumentation loosen my brain in a knotted spot, untying the tangle of stress. Big Thief in all their hopeful magic dismantle the accepted constructs of country-leaning indie-folk. Usually this genre consists of a man who has been defeated by something, with tears in his beer, and a 35 minute tracklist. In contrast, Big Thief conjures a reassuring, romantic outlook on the wonders around them. Flutes fly up and down like the sparrow outside and Lenker’s soft voice is comforting, of the same family as the death-defying, benevolent deer that shows up every now and then. 

After a very short 80 minutes, the final track, Blue Lightning, comes to an end. A band member says “what should we do now?” It’s almost like I forgot that these are normal people with normal lives. That is the effect Dragon has, for a moment it feels like they are channeling some kind of fairytale enchantment. But Big Thief is just a band, and this is just a collection of songs. The cover is just a sketch of animals at a campfire. Even with the unstoppable forces of time and death, we still get up and bake our potatoes and dance with our fingers and make campfires. Dragon points out the magic of the mundane; Aren’t we just a bunch of stupid animals trying to find some kind of happiness? 

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Fall Favorites Recap—A Return To Live Music in Colorado

By Augie Voss

While the pandemic still feels far from over, the availability of vaccines has allowed some semblances of normalcy to re-enter our lives. For music lovers like me, perhaps the most celebrated change came with artists around the world announcing US tours—here are a few of my favorite artists that visited the Front Range.

Mdou Moctar

In September, Mdou Moctar stopped through Denver’s Globe Hall on the North American tour for their recent album Afrique Victim. The Nigerien singer and guitarist brings a modern twist to Tuareg music, backed by a full band, and the result was a night of non-stop dancing to dynamic riffs and soulful singing. To see Mdou Moctar perform is to witness virtuosity in its purest form—I can’t remember the last time I was so awestruck by a musician’s mastery of their craft. In Mdou’s case, it goes beyond his stunning dexterity on the guitar; the whole band flowed in perfect synergy. Mdou’s hands seemed to move effortlessly between chords and complex picking patterns, and his coy confidence—sneaking smiles and smirks at the audience—felt far from arrogant. On the contrary, he had a unique and captivating way of engaging the audience with his body language. My favorite moment from the evening was a ~8-minute rendition of title track “Afrique Victime,” full of lightning-fast fingerpicking and bouncy vocals.

Mdou Moctar

New York-based experimental group Pure Adult opened the evening with a strident mixture of alt-rock instrumentals and harsh (but oddly endearing) lyricism. I’m used to seeing younger demographics at most shows, so it was a pleasant surprise to see a gaggle of folks my parents’ age moving toward the front—dancing with (and sometimes harder than) the early 20s mainstays of Denver’s music scene.

Check out Mdou Moctar’s recent short doc about the making of Afrique Victime: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIbV2TvQqzs

Watchhouse

Watchhouse

Recently re-branded indie-folk duo Watchhouse (fka Mandolin Orange) took the stage at Red Rocks on a blustery night in early October. After the scheduled support The Tallest Man on Earth was held up due to international visa issues, they were joined by The Milk Carton Kids—who, sharing one microphone, kicked off the show with a rich neo-folk set equal parts cheery and sorrowful.

Opening act—The Milk Carton Kids

After changing monikers earlier this year, Watchhouse released two singles and an eponymous album to critical acclaim. Nonetheless, I wondered if we’d get the Mandolin Orange classics, and thankfully we did. Crooning harmonies and lush melodies filled the venue, bringing fresh life to older tunes and proving that—despite a name change—the music is as good as ever. Hearing “Wildfire,” one of my favorite songs since high school, from the very top of Red Rocks was an experience I won’t forget any time soon.

Jungle

Jungle

Just listening to UK production duo Jungle—in the shower, or on the way to work—is already a foolproof way to inject energy and good vibes into your day. So when they filled Denver’s Mission Ballroom, my hopes were already high. To my delight, they exceeded all expectations once live instruments, backup singers, and an expansive LED wall entered the picture. Shortly after they took the stage, there was a tangible shift in the room’s energy—as if the audience entered an ecstatic trance, eager to fall into the band’s infectious rhythms and driving vocals. The setlist found a balance between their 2021 album Loving In Stereo and the hit-packed 2018 For Ever—and, thank goodness, their 2014 “Busy Earnin'” made a much-anticipated appearance during the encore.

Jungle

Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek

New York-born Caroline Polachek has released music under a myriad of monikers, most formatively as part of eccentric electro-pop outfit Chairlift during her years at UC Boulder in the mid-2000s. She has since collaborated with Beyonce, Solange, Charli XCX, and many others. When she released her highly anticipated debut album Pang (under the name Caroline Polachek) in 2019, the influence of her diverse discography and wide range of collaborators shone throughout the project.

Headlining the Bluebird Theater, she told the crowd, was an emotional and exciting experience—it was shows like these in Denver and Boulder that inspired her while first producing and performing with Chairlift. Parisian producer and singer Oklou opened the event with ethereal beats, live keys, and luscious vocals as powerful as they were soft. Caroline took the energy up a notch, incorporating spectacular stage design and vibrant, dynamic lighting that pierced through heavy fog and bolstered an already spirited performance.

Opening act—Oklou

Perhaps the best moment of the show was a cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop,” the first of Caroline’s two encore songs. Oklou joined Caroline center-stage on a rotating circular plate—standing back-to-back, they moved in sync, bodies and voices in glowing harmony.

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The War on Drugs at Mission Ballroom

By: Quinn Jones

I was eating Burger King in an empty Lowe’s parking lot as dusk fell. Earlier that day I had received an email from a close friend. The SoCC had a press pass to see The War On Drugs that very night at the Mission Ballroom. I responded to the email expressing my interest, but I didn’t think I had any chance at the tickets, given that I wasn’t a SoCC reporter. Because I felt that my chances of getting that press pass were slim, I decided I would spend the evening with my sister. Mid-burger, I get an email back from my SoCC liaison: I got the press pass! I wolfed the rest of the meal and set my course for the Mission Ballroom.

The energy in the ballroom was palpable. Hipsters young and old were forced to pack themselves into the cavernous hall. The hype was real, but the band came on stage with little fanfare. Front man Adam Granduciel, dressed in his usual button down and jeans, walked on stage balancing several beverages in his arms as the crowd erupted into applause. After Granduciel was armed with his Fender Stratocaster, the band launched right into “Old Skin” off of 2021’s I Don’t Live Here Anymore, their latest release and the subject of their current tour. As Granduciel strummed, he was joined by synthesizer player Robbie Bennett, playing a soft organ over Granduciel’s delicate chords. The crowd swayed and sang along to the melancholy, aching first verse. Granduciel and Bennett built a massive wall of texture, bringing the energy to its boiling point till drummer Charlie Hall brought in his thundering back beat, launching the song into its anthemic finale.

As they tuned and traded instruments after their first song, people around me talked to each other, predicting what would come next. Someone said “It’s gonna be ‘Pain.’” I hoped that this guy was right; 2017’s “Pain” was something of a pandemic anthem for me. As I waited with bated breath, Granduciel strapped on a beautiful Fender Jazzmaster and began to pick the somber arpeggio that begins “Pain.” The crowd positively burst into shouts of appreciation Apparently, I wasn’t the only fan of the song. The song reflects on how we experience loss and anxiety in conjunction with our own personal growth, or lack thereof. Saxophonist/keyboardist Jon Natchez played a haunting bass motif on his baritone saxophone, ensnaring the audience in the song’s innate gloom.

Image courtesy of FirstRowConcert

To use Granduciel’s lyrics, The War On Drugs exists “in the space between the beauty and the pain.” Though TWOD lyrics ponder the inherent pain and loneliness of the human condition and try to work through various traumas, the band crafts lush instrumentals that can move one to tears with both their tremendous beauty and their agonizing sadness. With their seven members, the band is up to this monumental task. Granduciel is flanked by some of the finest musicians on the scene. On his right, there is guitarist/keyboardist Anthony LaMarca, who adds a great deal of texture with his acoustic guitar. Then there’s bassist David Hartley, a no-frills rhythm player holding down the low end of the band’s infamous jams. Keyboardist/vocalist Eliza Hardy Jones stands on the risers above Granduciel, adding unique textures to the band’s vocal arrangements. In case you haven’t been counting, that’s three keyboardists on stage at the same time. This is how The War On Drugs achieve their infamous wall of sound.

The band fed off the crowd energy. Granduciel bantered with the crowd all night long. He praised the tenacity of the Denver audience, applauding their willingness to put up with the freezing temperatures to see the show. Halfway through the set, an audience member shouted “Play ‘Born in Time!’” Granduciel responded enthusiastically, and the band launched into the impromptu Bob Dylan cover. As the show drew to a close, Granduciel addressed the audience. He said “We’re only going to do three or four more songs. We’re not gonna do that bullshit where we walk off” to great applause. It’s this down-to-earth charm that cements both Granduciel and The War On Drugs as one of the great indie acts of our time. For anyone interested in seeing the band, they will be playing Red Rocks on September 19, 2022.

Watch their performance in Denver of their recent album’s title track song below!

video courtesy of FirstRowConcert

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