When Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek asked the band’s go-to producer Andrew Sarlo to oversee his second solo album Sarlo agreed, but there were some non-negotiable conditions. Everything would be recorded live using just eight dynamic mics, there could be no overdubs and headphones were banned.
It’s a familiar rootsy, organic approach to that which enabled Big Thief to release four beguiling indie-folk albums in their first four years, and it works a charm on Two Saviors, recorded on a humble Tascam 38 eight-track at the humid height of a steamy New Orleans summer.
Set up in a Victorian house one block from the Mississippi, Meek taught his band these gentle, unpolished country arrangements on the fly, recording everything inside a week. The songs had been written while Meek was on downtime following Big Thief’s pair of 2019 releases, Two Hands and U.F.O.F., following the end of his marriage to the band’s lead singer Adrianne Lenker a year earlier. The mood is pastoral and reflective, Meek looking back with fond perspective on a past chapter of his life.
While he’s an adept guitarist and an even better autobiographical writer, Meek’s greatest gift lies in the fantastical imagery he commands, dressing these cathartic tales in all the vivid colours of the natural world surrounding him. Opening song Pareidolia settles into a laconic waltzing mood. Meek’s sleepy Texan croon is complemented by the light patter of brushes on snare skin, like acorns falling on baked earth, as he lies on his back staring up at the sky and strums an acoustic guitar. “Pareidolia, with your head upon my lap on the buffalo grass/ the clouds are moving fast,” he recalls wistfully.
Meek’s musical partnership with Lenker dates back almost a decade, the pair touring initially as Buck and An in an orange velvet-lined van they lovingly christened Van Bon Jovi, and it’s fitting that she is a contributor to an album cloaked in the warmth of affectionate nostalgia. The sweetly melancholic Candle, co-written with Lenker, has a gorgeous lilting pedal steel thread running through it, as Meek’s tremulous, reedy voice summons the memory of “the same face with a line or two/ the same love I always knew”.
On 2020’s Instrumentals album, Lenker sang wondrously of a man whose “eyes are blueberries, video screens” and Meek returns to the theme of a lover’s eyes himself numerous times on Two Saviors, dreaming of a face with a “blue eye on the left-hand side, hazel on the right” on Second Sight, a song which introduces the striking image of a swimming pool full of turpentine. The notes he picks out on his electric are warm and scratchy.
The swelling lap steel and fluttering tremolo on the perfectly unrefined title track are all kinds of lovely, Meek sounding a little lost as he concludes “I need to be alone, to know my home, I know no home”. On Two Moons, the meandering lines from his acoustic unfurl like silvery strands and there’s an elemental, placid quality to his hushed vocal, while the ghostly pedal steel and muted patter of Austin Vaughn’s drumming return to adorn the delicately beautiful Dream Daughter.
The first time Meek’s band rise above this somniferous reverie is on the succinct, devotional Ham On White, when the acoustic playing becomes more fervent, ushering in the briefest of simmering fuzz-lashed electric solos. No sooner has it reared its head than it’s gone and peace is restored. Restraint can be a powerful weapon in the right hands.
Cannonball! Pt.2 is a sequel to the original from 2018’s self-titled debut, and finds Meek bowing to the inevitable advance of age. Evocatively, he needs “Fireflies to show me around New York town” as, accompanied by a frisky honky-tonk piano, his guitar rises steadily to a serrated peak.
The tape hiss left between the end of Pocketknife and the beginning of closing track Halo Light typifies the scruffy grace encouraged by Sarlo. “The halo light was humble, our heather died, but tomorrow I’ll buy roses,” Meek laments on that final track as his fingers squeak against acoustic strings and twinkling arpeggios rise redolently into the hot Louisiana air.
The whole of Two Saviors slips by in such chimerical fashion, like an enveloping dream on a balmy summer afternoon. Meek’s gentle, illuminative playing and his marrying of metaphors from the natural world with the benign dolefulness of his recollections make for something truly magical.
These reflections on love, pain and rebirth sound sage and weathered, way beyond Buck Meek’s years, in much the same way as Bill Callahan and Leonard Cohen before him. With Big Thief recording again somewhere out in the Rockies, the astonishingly strong body of work that has flowed from the band and its individual members looks set to continue growing apace. This softly lulling collection of songs is more than worthy of a place in that lofty discography.
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