Double-Album Review: Adrianne Lenker – songs and instrumentals

It seems lockdown has been productive for some. The halting of live music has obviously been a blow to the majority, but Adrianne Lenker has been able to turn her idle hands to new music. Lenker evidently has more than just idle hands, she’s got music coming out of her pores. This latest double album release, songs and instrumentals, comes after having written and released two albums with Big Thief (the band Lenker fronts) last year and releasing her last solo album abysskiss in 2018.

During lockdown, and after Big Thief had their tour cut short, Lenker returned to the US and hired a cabin near some friends in Massachusetts. Without much pre-planning, Lenker found the cabin a perfect creative setting to write the double album songs and instrumentals.

In Lenker’s own words: “As I settled into the cabin over the course of a month, I grew really connected to the space itself. The one room cabin felt like the inside of an acoustic guitar – it was such a joy to hear the notes reverberate in the space. I got a hankering to capture it, so I called my friend Phil and asked “How’d you like to get outta the city and make a record that sounds like the inside of an acoustic guitar?

“I had a handful of songs that I was planning on recording, but by the time Phil arrived I was on a whole new level of heartsick and the songs were flying through my ears. I was basically lying in the dirt half the time… Nine of these songs were written freshly during the recording session. We began and closed each day with an improvised acoustic guitar instrumental, and we made a collage of our favorite pieces, which became the first side of the instrumentals album.”

Lenker’s solo recordings are more intimate and melancholic compared with Big Thief. Songs like ‘zombie girl’, ‘heavy focus’ and ‘not a lot, just forever’ could be Big Thief songs, but as a solo recording the guitar fingerpicking and singing is more personal and affecting. The only additions to the layered acoustic guitar and Lenker’s voice on these records are brushed drums and the occasional wind chime, birdsong or rainfall. As this was recorded in a cabin with hastily acquired equipment, I guess you can’t expect the production to be studio quality, but I don’t think it matters and probably adds to the intimate feelings the album evokes.

Lenker has a knack for making songs which are hooky and memorable. Her previous solo album abysskiss was phenomenal and after a few listens it got under my skin and hasn’t left. songs doesn’t quite reach the same heady heights as the last release, although there are gems like ‘two reverse’, ‘dragon eyes’ and ‘anything’ that would make into any of her other releases, the latter two being the singles from the album.

instrumentals is a collection of sketches from the cabin sessions separated into two tracks. ‘music for indigo’ and ‘mostly chimes’ are composed of two or three songs sketches each with a bit of playing around in between. instrumentals can be seen as an accompaniment to songs rather than a standalone piece. It places you in the same cabin listening to every creak of a chair, wind chime and beat of rain on the roof. The wind chimes and the sound of rain feature heavily in the background and foreground of these instrumental tracks. From listening to these improvised sessions that came to form the album, you can understand why the setting and the sounds drove Lenker to create and record music here.

Although the albums were written in a short timeframe and maybe slightly lack the refinement of a studio recording, I think it’s then a testament to Lenker’s songwriting that songs and instrumentals do not seem cobbled together at all. In fact, I like that the production is a bit rough around the edges, and is exactly how I imagine Lenker wanted to remember her summer cabin isolation.

Anthony Warrington

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