Big Thief's U.F.O.F. Steals a Page From '60s era Psych-Folk Rockers

Brooklyn- based quartet Big Thief formed after all four of its members— Adrianne Lenker (guitar, vocals), Buck Meek (guitar, backing vocals), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (drums)— had graduated from the Berklee College Of Music.

A few years back they might have been lumped in with the Freak Folk movement. A moniker coined around 2004 to describe a musical movement with a hippie spirit and a pastoral romanticism. Figureheads of the movement included Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Espers, who were largely inspired by the works of Linda Perhacs, The Incredible String Band and Pearls Before Swine. U.F.O.F. is their third release and first for 4AD records. The album was recorded at Bear Creek Studios in Woodinville, Washington (even the studios in which they record have monikers that reek of “earthiness”).

David Byrne discusses in his excellent book “How Music Works” what happens when a piece of music is so enthralling it has a way of moving you. He writes, “The emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.”

Lenker’s voice has the profound ability to communicate in an intimate, emotional way. When she sings about love, attraction and the exciting possibilities of a new relationship, it resonates. At the same time there is a bit of mystery to her lonely voice that gives the songs a dreamlike nature. Spend time with this album and you will be captured by its biting restraint. Sometimes what is beneath the surface is more beguiling than the text. In a way it’s hard to pinpoint the magic but that’s where the greatness lies.

Although the heart of Big Thief is undoubtedly Lenker, the album wouldn't work without the other band members' contributions. The musical accompaniment is very restrained (in the liner notes, band members are credited with "ambience") and provides the perfect backdrop for Lenker’s songs. Meek is content to keep his guitar work in the background, but when called upon he can also howl. A good example can be found in “Jenni”. As Lenker sings “too hard to breath” the music swells up behind her, cresting into a wave of volatile distortion. It’s one of the few times in the song Lenker has to fight for space or risk being suffocated. it’s a brilliant and powerful effect.

Lenker has a tendency to populate her songs with a kaleidoscope of colors and dreamy sequences, but at their core they are still firmly rooted in the here and now as in the opening verse of “Orange” where she sings
orange is the color of my love
fragile orange winds in the garden
fragile means that I can hear her flesh
crying little rivers in her forearm
fragile is that I mourn her death
as our limbs are twisting in her bedroom

The songs are very personal. The excitement of a new relationship, the laws of attraction, growing old— intimate moments that unfold and have the power to really grab a hold of you.


every gulp of the warm suburb air
Betsy’s auburn, auburn hair
drive into New York with me
how she keeps me calm

On an album with many stand-out tracks, the title song “U.F.O.F.” certainly rises to the top. Lenker sings about her UFO friend who will never return again because she’s taken root in the sky. She imagines being taken so their love can deepen. Underneath the layers of shoe gaze guitars there is still something humane and deeply touching. Harry Smith used the term “Celestial Monochord” to symbolize the deep connection between music and the cosmos. It would be a fitting term to describe this music. Outside of the literal connection between the terrestrial and extra-terrestrial, it forces us to take a deeper look at our lives. Halfway through the song Lenker sings about “ Switching to another lens”, perhaps challenging us to take another perspective. It is a line that draws you in and tells you a lot about how one might approach this album. Through which lens do we choose to examine our daily lives and why do we continually rely on that same viewpoint? If one is not working. maybe it’s time to switch. Even if it is working, being close minded can inhibit our ability as individuals to grow.

This certainly is an album that after repeated listens continues to reveal itself. The numerous color references in the lyrics lend the proceedings a technicolor ambience. These splashes of color are reflected in the music and bring a certain airiness to what in the wrong hands could have been a very dark album. For a group with a Berklee pedigree it would have been easy to step on the throttle and make this more about chops than giving the music the appropriate support it deserves. Big Thief has risen to the occasion, delivering an album easy to recommend on all fronts.

Tracked live in a room with 30ft vaulted ceilings, the recording has a warm, earthy presence. The drums in particular have a very punchy, live quality. The band’s goal was to set up and through the recording let the chemistry be communicated of a group playing together live in a room.

In Andrew Sarlo the band has found a producer sympathetic to its goals. He too prefers that approach to studio trickery. The result is a widescreen soundstage with minimal compression and a tonal balance that compliments the style of music being played. Lenker had expressed the desire for a more articulated recording and feels this record was the closest they have come yet to executing that goal. The LP, pressed on orange vinyl (also available in black) at MPO, was dead flat and had very minimal surface noise.

With this review, AnalogPlanet welcomes its newest contributor Jeff Flaim: "Born in Southern California’s elusive Inland Empire I developed a love for music through his dad’s vinyl record collection and his Dual turntable, Acoustic Research speakers, and Fisher receiver. Forty-plus years later, my passion for music has morphed into what some might call an obsession, with tastes ranging from Buzzcocks to the Beach Boys, with a twist of Tropicalia, Bluegrass, and Zamrock. Though my proclivity for high fidelity audio has matured way beyond my pay grade, I still spend most nights in the sweet spot—nestled between two Harbeth speakers, in the company of a Rega RP-6, EAR 834P Phono Preamp, Rogue Sphinx receiver, and three fingers of Bulleit Rye. I earned a B.A in Philosophy from Claremont Mckenna College. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I've parlayed that expensive liberal arts education into a successful career as a gaffer, lighting television shows that I wouldn’t ever watch. When not listening to music or tinkering with my components, I can be found cooking or woodworking in my Long Beach, CA. garage where I have a router and a table saw."

Music Direct Buy It Now

Anton D's picture

I came on board when a friend hit me with "Capacity."

It is one of those albums that I didn't pay much attention to the first time I played it, but something was there that made me play it again, and then again, and it became a real 'grower' album. Now I love it.

I like when I start out somewhat indifferent to an album and then it builds for me over time. In general, that has made for a nice long relationship with the material.

I am looking forward to spinning this on my turntable!

Thanks again!

Steelhead's picture

Never heard of this band.

I think I know what shoegaze means but I am not positive.

However, your excellent review is going to have me checking this band out. Intriguing, interesting and enjoyed reading about these cats.

Wonderful writing.

MrRom92's picture

Should be worth noting… Their bass player, Max Oleartchik is actually Alon Oleartchik’s son… probably not a household name in most parts of the world, but a veritable rockstar in Israel. A very well respected musician, he played bass in Kaveret in the 70’s (long story short, basically the Israeli Beatles) and was largely responsible for the more jazzy/proggy elements to their sound. Also had a pretty respectable solo career in the 80’s/90’s, if a bit more pop oriented than anything. Sipurei Poogy will have come out 47 years ago this November, it’s an album ANY rock lover should check out so long as they can get past the Hebrew lyrics. Lots of talent on that record.

Anton D's picture

Thank you for posting that information, I did not know that stuff!

Very appreciated.

Steve Edwards's picture

I am also a product of the Inland Empire; San Bernardino to be precise. I'm guessing my age exceeds yours, but Lyle's Record City on Highland Ave was on of my early introductions to the joy of vinyl records.
Very nice review; play on

flaimjeff's picture

Thanks for the warm welcome! I used to frequent the aisles of Rhino Records in Claremont as a young punk.

analogdw's picture

Welcome Jeff. That is one great review. This sounds like my king of album, purchasing now!

abelb1's picture

Great review Jeff. I have this album on digital but wish I held out for the LP as I agree it's great! Cheers,

jokonst's picture

I am reading all those album reviews posted in hi-fi/hi-end audiophile sites/magazines.
It is so disappointing to realize an old truth told by a lot of music lovers.
You guys just listen to your systems. Only that way i can explain why you give all those mediocre (at best) albums so good reviews.
People in this "audiophile" community just don't listen to music.
Good music does not mean good sound guys, please...

Chemguy's picture

...2nd sentence would be excoriated by your English teacher. Yikes, man. I just listened to the album on Spotify. Maybe you should too; it’s very good.

Anyway, welcome Jeff and kudos on such an insightful review.

jokonst's picture

"...2nd sentence would be excoriated by your English teacher."... You just validate my point with that comment sir. You are ignoring the substance of the matter. Typical audiophile.

Chemguy's picture

I countered your illiterate comment by indicating that I DID listen to the album and found it to be very good. Hardly ignoring your lame assertion at all, actually.
Your point was weak because it was buried in vitriol and stereotype.

jokonst's picture

First i listen to the album, then i write. It goes without saying that i have listened it too.
You try to make an argument here but you express yourself like your mental age is about 9-10 years old. If i can judge from the picture you must be older than that.
The fact that you try to hit me on my english (which is not my first language have to say), shows what kind of person are you. I'm sure that you give more attention to the gear that plays the music you hear than the music itself.It all makes perfect sense about you and the people that i am referring to in my first post.
Thanks for validating my argument. (and please, you don't have to answer to me this time, I have lost my interest to this conversation sir)

Steelhead's picture

Well youngster, you did your job.

Went to YouTube and checked out their tiny desk and KXEP concerts. Really enjoyed the band and her voice and inflections sold me.

Ordered Masterpiece and U.F.O.F. yesterday.

Thanks for turning this dinosaur on to these cats.

clarets's picture

I thought Joanna Newsom was one on her own. How wrong I was.
Big Thief are the real deal.
Can't wait for more introductions.