Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, podcast

April AOTM: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

Ah, the double album. What a complicated thing you are. How many double albums would make a better single album? Well, all of them, you could argue. But I think that, at its best, a double album that can offer something so much richer, shaggier and more honest about a band/artist and where it’s at than a nicely curated single. I’m thinking Sign ’O The Times. I’m thinking Tusk. And, of course, I’m thinking The White Album.

What do all those albums have in common? They’re sprawling. They’re free-wheeling. They encompass quite a few different genres and sounds within one record. Sometimes, they’re a sound of a band creaking at the edges, or falling apart. Oh, and they probably have a track or two we could do without. Not even the die-hardest Beatle fan (and I speak as one) would cry many tears if Wild Honey Pie or Don’t Pass Me By had failed to make the White Album final cut.

So where does Dragon (please don’t make me type out the full name of the album, which I’m sure we all agree is a fucking abomination of a title) sit amongst this? I guess we have to first acknowledge the extraordinary rise of Big Thief. The Brooklyn based quartet seem to have hit a crazy sweet spot somewhere between Americana traditionalists and indie wunderkinds. They encompass both the hipster Brooklyn where they live and the rural Minnesota and Texas of Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek’s childhoods. Over the course of 5 increasingly confident albums, they’ve gone from new kids on the block to Grammy nominations and critical adoration. People FUCKING LOVE Big Thief. I’m one of them.

I first came across them about 5 years ago when I saw a Tiny Desk concert. The sound! The intensity! I was immediately smitten:

And yes, despite that, there is something elusive about them. I love them, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why they seem to do this stuff better than any of their contemporaries. Throw a rock in Brooklyn, and presumably you’d hit someone from an Americana indie band on the head. Is it just the songwriting? The passion of Lenker, and the interplay between her and Meek? Their appeal is hard to quantify. And as they’ve got bigger, there’s also been the beginnings of an inevitable backlash, a kind of ’what’s so special about Big Thief?’ This excellent NYT podcast does a good job of exploring this, especially as the host is one of those doubters: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-enigma-of-big-thief/id120315823?i=1000552637027

So what about the album? Christ, where to start? Well, it feels both like a progression from the excellent U.F.O.F. and Two Hands albums, and a giant leap forward – and perhaps also sideways, up, down, and in several directions at once. The variety of the songs is a bit dizzying, and it takes quite a bit of time to digest. Indeed, I still tend to listen to either the first or the second half of the album in one sitting, which is perhaps a strong hint that it’s almost TOO rich at times. In fact, if I’m being honest, I was confused about my initial response, and that was partly because the band had been slowly leaking songs onto Spotify, and EVERY SINGLE one of those songs were astonishing – so the more rag-tag, messy nature of the album felt almost like an anticlimax at first.

But as I stuck with it, every part of it began to grow on me. I started to love the stylistic changes, the random turns left and right. I began to enjoy the journey, the ambition, the blind optimism of committing this many songs to disc and having the confidence to just chuck it out there and let the audience work it out for themselves. I don’t think it’s always an easy listen, and it certainly has some weaker moments amongst many absolutely breathtaking songs.

Before we get into the songs, I want to say that I found it really handy breaking it up into the 4 parts of the album. It really helps make sense of the record and of the sequencing.

DISC 1/SIDE 1

The first few songs set up the schizophrenic nature of the album – CHANGE is classic Big Thief, as astonishing that might be one of the best songs they’ve ever written. TIME ESCAPING is a totally different beast, like a wonky pop song with that strange industrial rhythm section. And then, third track – WTF, they’re doing a really goofy country song, SPUD INFINITY, with a title as daft as the track. It’s certainly bold curation, I’ll give them that! CERTAINTY is a lovely duet that heads back into Laura Cantrell-style modern country. And then DRAGON (the title track) – what a glorious song, like a lost Dolly Parton ballad.

SIDE 2

Opens with SPARROW, which perhaps outstays its 5 minute run time, the first track I felt wasn’t quite essential. But then – boom! – into Cocteau Twins (yes, really!) territory with LITTLE THINGS. Couple of tracks later, FLOWER OF BLOOD sounds like a 80s/90s 4AD band, all feedback and grungy guitars. Next track BLURRED VIEW is a creepy lo-fi thing, with crappy drum machine (or crappy drums!) and Adrienne whispering/muttering darkly into the mic. Repetitive and weird. On we go.

DISC 2/SIDE 3

What an opener. RED MOON is a personal favourite, a proper Lucinda Williams country song that’s robust and cheerful (‘that’s my grandma!’). NO REASON is another astonishing ballad and another highlight, with a chorus that will not leave your brain. This song runs round my head all the time. WAKE ME UP TO DRIVE is a bit of a dirge, but I like its lo-fi energy. But A PROMISE IS A PENDULUM is amazing, delicate and lovely.

SIDE 4

So this is maybe where the album runs out of steam for me a little. Yes, it has one of the very best tracks on the album, SIMULATION SWARM. But I do wonder if too many of the last side’s tracks feel like a retread of earlier material. 12,000 LINES is lovely, but LOVE LOVE LOVE’s crunchy indie is a bit exhausting. THE ONLY PLACE feels like quite a minor tune. BLUE LIGHTNING is a lot of fun and sounds very much like the jam session it undoubtedly is, but by then I’m exhausted! And when I listen on Spotify, I often find myself thinking – oh is this the last song? And it’s not. Not a good sign!

So there we have it. It’s glorious, it’s confusing, it’s a mess, it’s ambitious. I guess the big question is – why did they make a double album? My guess is that they wanted to stretch their wings. They’ve made glorious single albums that work as a whole. They’re clearly prolific – look at the fact they released TWO albums – both amazing – in one year in 2019. They seem to me, on listening to this, that they’re just bursting with ideas, and they wanted to try out as many as possible. Whether that works for you will depend on how much you like ’em in the first place, and how tolerant you are of all these experiments, some of which are pretty free-wheeling.

For me, it works. It’s a wonderful album with some of the best songs of their career, but perhaps it just outstays its welcome a tiny bit. Having said all that, are there many songs I’d cull? Not really. Could they have made a more succinct single album? Well of course they could. Do I love that it’s a double album? I bloody do. Do I feel like I know the band better as a result? You betcha. Is it an occasionally frustrating listen? Of course it is: it’s a double album.

7 thoughts on “April AOTM: Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

  1. Double albums work, if they’re laid our as a double album, which granted is tough is an age of CD’s and digital albums. I like your thoughts on a double LP with 4 sides, but those of us with CD’s and listening digitally there sadly isn’t a break and it’s all or nothing. The result (with this album and other double albums) is a lot of music, with peaks and troughs.

    With Big Thief I think we need to discuss the Elephant in the room. The pace of music creation from this band. Not only as a foursome, but also the work Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek have done together, plus the solo work that them, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia have also done by themselves and with other bands…. It’s insane. Not only by the sheer amount of work but also the quality. It’s to the extent that there are many stories of the band touring after releasing a new album, but not playing any of the albums material as they have already written and are performing at least an album of new material beyond the album that the audience has come to hear. It’s baffles me, but I sort of respect it as well (though you can understand the frustration of the audience).

    My experience was that on first listen there was way too much to listen to. It jumps around and seems to lack flow. Each song has its own merit but there’s a lot to digest. As brother David pointed out; the first three songs are great but all over the place for an overall album pace and flow. But (as Joey says), there is a but….. over time and many listens the chaos settles down and you start and love the brilliance of the song writing track by track.

    Over all my highlights are similar to David though some of the songs he has questioned are some of my favourites, mainly ‘Spud Infinity’. Echoing David’s thoughts ‘Change’ is one of the best songs they have written and one of the best songs I have heard in a long time, whilst ‘Simulation Swarm’ is my personal favourite on the album. ‘Time Escaping’ was like sandpaper to my ears when I first heard it, but even it has grown on me.

    Big Thief and this album sit in my wheel house. They have since Spotify told me to like them a few years back. My family seem to like them as well. How special is this album though? Is it their White Album? I’m still digesting.

    I look forward to our chat on this, as I think this album and Big Thief will all have a different place for us (positive places granted).

  2. Well. it’s a great write-up brother @davidhallison, and an album that was never going to be short on discussion. I came here with a few pretty well-set thoughts on this – my first – Big Thief album, but even reading this and forming what I write is an illustration of how my brain is trying to work out what I think about this record.

    First off, MY elephant in the room: I had never knowingly listened to a Big Thief record up to now. Maybe the odd track, (were they recommended at some point on the pod? I can’t remember) but I come to this with both a clean slate to appraise this album, and also none of the history that you guys and many others have that will mean I can’t possibly have the context or admiration of a band you all know and love. I’m not sure why either, because having also gone back to both 2019 albums after a deep dive in here, I found them right in my wheelhouse. But, here we are.

    So what did I really make of this first time out? It took me a week just to get a chance to listen to it all in one go. It really is long, perhaps too long. There’s a podcast of its own just to talk double albums, and it’s right that David mentions a few there, because it’s easy to forget that even a Beatles fan like me can take or leave a good few of the White Album (less so, the peerless Sign O’ The Times, but that’s for another day). That’s what double albums allow you: freedom, experimentation, looseness, maybe a concept. Released from the shackles of 45 minutes what do you do? You wouldn’t just do a longer version of a previous work. But as a non-BT fan, I really struggled here, just to even wrap my head around the whole thing in one go. It’s like when you go to the cinema and you end up sitting so close you can’t see the whole screen at the same time. This is what listening to Dragon… felt like for weeks. There were clearly some great songs on there, but seeing those 20 songs as a single narrative was nigh on impossible. So forming a coherent view of it was a problem. I’m still here, and may never quite get beyond it.

    Like Metronomy, when you love a band or artist, you are willing them to make new music and your view of it is so different to a first-timer, and it feels like I’m going to be the Joey of Ep21 when we record Ep22. I find so much to admire in Dragon but I haven’t fallen for it, and I may never do. Because all the freedom a double album gives you as a fan to see a band really go out of their lane has a risk of being confusing and hard to connect with as a newcomer.

    I’ll echo a lot of things though: the opening two tracks are superb. Change is just a mesmerising track and I thought ‘oh, wow, this could be amazing’. Time Escaping – another one of my favourite five tracks on Dragon – with its strange percussion and plucked notes was a first listen favourite too. But then things started to go awry for me. I don’t think it’s a big surprise that I don’t really feel Country in all its guises (even if I flirt with its outer edges with the likes of Kevin Morby, or some of the array of female vocal artists I have loved) so Spud Infinity just put my hackles up. Where Certainty skirted with the c-word, it grew on me, but the album is punctuated with tracks – Red Moon (no, NOT your grandma, thanks) and Blue Lightning (despite its great lyrics) amongst others – that became an ‘oh no’ moment that when I was really enjoying a sequence of tracks, that just jolted me away from that connection. I’m sure there’s a psychiatrist that can work out why, despite this, they are often the ones that ended up stuck in my brain when I woke up in the morning. Perhaps my brain just likes winding me up. It’s such a shame because it never let me settle in with it.

    Because there are some FANTASTIC songs on there that make me want more. Just not quite enough and not quite consistently enough. After the opening segue, the title track, the 90s guitar garage pomp of Little Things, and its musical partners Flower Of Blood and Blurred View, or the majesty of No Reason – such Carrie and Lowell feels and heavy Midlake Van Occupanther vibes – (fun fact: the flautist on it played on Tapestry), or Promise Is a Pendulum’s frailty and 12,000 Lines’ simple beauty. And, of course, Simulation Swarm, as close to a ‘hit’ you’d get from the whole thing. But for every one of them there’s a ‘country’ track, or strange mis-hits (for me) like Wake Me Up To Drive (‘hey, I know, let’s stick a drum machine on, it’ll be fun’) or Sparrow, which got into my head, but not in a good way. I feel sadness that I couldn’t feel for those tracks the way I could for the ones I loved. But I wasn’t sure I ever was after a few listens in, and for once, I don’t think there’ll be a damascene conversion in the next few days. For what it’s worth, I am firmly not in the camp of the presenter of the NYT pod: I don’t really know or see the hype machine or deification of BT, so have nothing to kick against, and nor do I have issues with Lenker’s voice (it’s distinctive and malleable to so many things, even if it doesn’t always work for me) and the band are so loose and so tight at the same time. But… it isn’t quite landing.

    There’s an interesting conversation to be had – which was noted on this episode of the Out On That Line podcast that’s also worth a listen (https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/track-65-big-thief-dragon-new-warm-mountain-i-believe-in-you/id1530217283?i=1000551752497) where they talk about the recording locations: Tuscon, Upstate New York, Topenga, CA and the Rocky Mountains. I would love to match up the tracks but there are some obvious groupings here, so if anyone’s got any articles that got into this in more depth I’d be fascinated to read it, because we all love a dive into things like this!

    Ultimately, it’s great to see such ambition on one record, going into every area they want to navigate to, knowing it may or may not come off for everyone. But to have the freedom to do that is a lovely thing, and it’s what we can all love about this record. Because my god they make some amazing sounds and are clearly so in sync with each other. I also am aware I’ve not had all the chance to go into the lyrics across the album, but the sheer length and depth make it hard to find alone time enough to do that. I will try. I find myself wondering how I’d have felt about Dragon if i’d found BT in 2019 with all the context and history others have. But you can’t force that stuff either. So I’m left with a warm glow that is the combination of some moments that really spark the flames, and others that almost put them out. Such is live. Roll on the pod!

  3. Side post: for what it’s worth I’ve been playing around with a ‘single’ album of Dragon with the songs I like and it’s below. It removes a lot of the ‘country’ element and as a result feels a bit more ‘safe’ with it, but you can’t have everything. It’s a shade over 40 minutes but I like it.

    Change
    Time Escaping
    Certainty
    Dragon
    Little Things
    Blurred view
    No Reason
    Promise Is A Pendulum
    12,000
    Simulation Swarm
    Love Love Love
    The Only Place

  4. Love the crack at the single album, Guy. Here’s my go, 13 tracks worth. Controversially, I’m keeping tracks 1-5 exactly as they are, then I go off piste and re-order the 2nd half quite a bit. There flow of this make me extremely happy. 12,000 Lines is a great closing track, wish they’d gone with that actually!

    SIDE A
    Change
    Time Escaping
    Spud Infinity
    Certainty
    Dragon New Warm…
    Little Things

    SIDE B
    Red Moon
    No Reason
    Flower of Blood
    A Promise is a Pendulum
    Simulation Swarm
    Blue Lighning
    12,000 Lines

  5. Wow. I am not sure if there’s anything left to say … or is there? I’ll have a go.

    Let me start off by taking inspiration from how David signed off, asking himself a bunch of questions which he then answers;

    Question 1 – Joey, do you love this album?
    Answer 1 – yes

    Question 2 – Joey, does this album really do your head in?
    Answer 1 – yes

    So stating the obvious, there’s a lot to go at here. It’s a proper double album. 20 tracks and 80 minutes worth of Big Thief. But at least the album takes slightly less time to listen to than the title takes to say. Who let them call it that? I flatly refuse to use its full title, I will refer to it is ‘Dragon’. In 2019, Big Thief released U.F.O.F (12 tracks / 43 minutes) and later that year they released ‘Two Hands’ (10 tracks and 39 minutes). So we’ve been here before. At least in 2019 the band gave us some guidance as to how their 20 odd tracks should be consumed i.e. two separate albums. In 2022 they’ve just chucked everything in a big bag, jumbled it around a bit and released ‘Dragon’. If you look at modern album lengths, 60-something minute albums are not that rare but there feels to be a big gap between 60 and 80 minutes. What I mean is, this feels like a LONG album and I am speaking as someone who loves Big Thief. However, I don’t feel that it is just the length of it that makes it feel long. The album feels so all over the place, there is so little in the way of a visible narrative arc connecting tracks that it feels a disjointed, bumpy ride. David and Guy have both commented about feeling tired when you get to the last quarter of the album. I get that, I feel that too. As its 20 tracks, there is a natural inclination to listen to this in 2, 10 track blocks but then the album looses even more coherence.

    But hang on, I actually really love this. My kids make me feel knackered constantly but I still fucking love them. I do find it hard work but also find it so rewarding.

    Guy … I really don’t think this is an appropriate 1st Big Thief album, I do feel for you. You’d never suggest the White Album to a Beatles virgin would you. You’ve got to have a lot invested in Big Thief to spend as much time with this album as you have … or you’re preparing to record a podcast on it.

    Stylistically, the band have really turned up the volume on both their ‘Americana’ influences and their 90’s / 00’s indie influences. They rarely do it on the same track so you do get a flip-flop effect between two quite different styles.

    On the ‘Americana’ side of things, they’ve always been a little bit country, a little bit American folk but wow they’ve really turned this up here. Way more than any previous album. I listened to their first two albums this week and the country influence is there but in really minor touches. Lenker borrows from Americana in terms of vocal inflections that can be a bit marmite for some. For me, I am 100% comfortable with this. She often reminds me of Joanna Newsom, an artist that I have like for many years. Also interesting fact, she released a triple album called ‘Have One on Me’ that at 124 minutes makes this feel very short. Spud Infinity is one of my favourite tracks, its interesting to hear that its not floated your boats. The lyrics and cadence of vocal delivery is so Dylan, first time i heard it I had it down as massively inspired by Like a Rolling Stone … which is a line that is even used in the lyrics.

    Whilst I’m thinking about the influence of other artists I’d like to talk about the Pixies. I’ve never thought this before but there are characteristics of the Pixies that I really hear in Big Thief. On some tracks, the aching desperation of Lenkers lyrics and vocal delivery is really reminiscent of Black Francis and Buck Meeks lead guitar play sits in the mix, and within tracks in a way that I can only liken to Joey Santiago. This is perhaps heard most clearly on Love, Love Love. Whilst I’m here ‘The Only Place’ is the best track that Elliot Smith never wrote.

    If I had my way – this would probably be a 12 track album.

    I don’t know which 12 tracks of course …

    … and Blue Lightening is the only track that I think is a mistake, so what do I know.

    The album is a right fucking mess and it will definitely be in my top 10 for 2022.

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