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Ernest Hood - Neighborhoods Music Album Reviews

A newly reissued private-press curio from 1974 captures the bygone sounds of daily life in Portland, Oregon, in dreamy, proto-ambient form.
In 1975, the Portland, Oregon, musician Ernest Hood pressed his lone solo album, Neighborhoods, in an edition of a few hundred. He passed out copies primarily to friends, and the album, a curious blend of found sounds and proto-ambient, disappeared into the Pacific Northwest mist. Newly reissued by Freedom to Spend (in a much improved pressing, spread across two discs), it’s not the first such rarity to be pulled from the ether in the 21st century, as YouTube’s algorithm accumulates millions of plays for once obscure jazz and new-age records. But it might be the most uncanny, an album that kindles a sensation not unlike watching home videos of your own childhood.



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Big Thief - Two Hands Music Album Reviews

The second landmark album this year from Big Thief is raw, tactile, and essential. The intimate songs zoom in on a band that feels, at this moment, totally invincible.

Coming from a band who, just five months ago, materialized somewhere deep in a forest with a mystical set of songs wrapped in a vast, alien cosmos—a band who, in order to summon the perfect squall of noise, claimed to have suspended an electric guitar from the ceiling of a barn and batted it around like a piñata in a circle of amplifiers—Two Hands is jarringly earthbound. For their latest album, the Brooklyn quartet Big Thief invites you to join them live and unadorned in the studio for the span of 10 songs. “Hand me that cable/Plug into anything,” Adrianne Lenker sings, moments after issuing a more basic instruction: “Cry with me/Cry with me.”

Nearly every song overflows with tears and blood, bared teeth and broken tongues; living, killing, dying. There are few overdubs, and sometimes you hear the band members instructing each other when to step back or take a solo, like they’re just rehearsing for the actual performance. It makes for a specific kind of rock record: an attempt to capture a band’s imperfect, raw essence, to show what happens when they simply count to four and take off. The approach is best known for accentuating a tough, ragged cohesion, like Neil Young records in the ’70s, but this record goes somewhere different. The more Big Thief zoom in, the more magical they sound.

It’s a trick that these musicians have spent their careers perfecting. Since their 2016 debut, Masterpiece, each successive album has felt like a breakthrough geared for larger spaces. But their own interpersonal dynamic has followed an inverse trajectory. “At this point we’re basically touching each other,” guitarist Buck Meek recently observed about their magnetic live shows, a connection made literal on the new album cover. After the spacious odes to the natural world on U.F.O.F, Two Hands is a record defined by these collisions—a reminder that intimacy isn’t just about the comfort we bring to each other but also the proximity to our sickness and pain, blood and guts.

The record proceeds along a bell-curve, with the heavier moments at the center reverberating through the quieter points on either end. The focus is on the patient interplay between Lenker’s guitar—rhythmic and physical, like a slot machine with infinite outcomes—and James Krivchenia’s drumming, as patient and instinctive as it’s ever sounded. The accompaniment from Meek and bassist Max Oleartchik, who plays a few solos in “Those Girls,” is more understated but just as crucial. In sparer, creeping moments like “The Toy” and “Cut My Hair,” you can sense the band listening to each other, responding with reassuring hums and nods. And when they do cut loose, you feel the thrashing.

Variations on the word “crying” appear in half these songs, and each time Lenker sings it, she tells a different story. Occasionally her lonesome, quivering voice feels like an outsider descendent of country-folk singers like Kath Bloom or Iris DeMent, particularly in “Replaced,” a co-write with Meek. Other times, she sounds like someone clawing at her own skin, trying to escape. In “Forgotten Eyes,” a heartland rocker whose lyrics might be about homelessness, she trembles uneasily toward the final chorus, holding out the “ng” of “tongue” until it makes a phlegmy, growling noise in the back of her throat. Big Thief were built for moments like these, where sound merges with meaning, where the floating voice in your headphones finds its body.

As a lyricist, Lenker has become newly adept at telling stories through her absences. She’s written songs in the past that dazzle with poetry (“Mary”) and others that are memoiristic in their precision (“Mythological Beauty”), but these are pared down to just the most crucial bits of dialogue and wisdom. “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection,” she sings in “Forgotten Eyes,” her voice breaking at the word “needs.” “Talk to the boy in me/He’s there,” she begs in the closing “Cut My Hair” as the music cuts out from underneath her. Best of all is “Not,” a fiery exorcism that merges some of her most explosive imagery with a climactic guitar solo; the desperation in her playing feels like a string of cries interrupted by shallow, gasping breaths.

“Not” sits at the heart of the record with “Shoulders,” a stunner that’s been in the band’s live repertoire for years. Like a dark analog to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” or the Mountain Goats’ “This Year,” it gains power from its folk simplicity: a plaintive melody and a chorus that snowballs with a momentum that seems physical—part promise, part prayer. Lenker, who once noted that she is often both the attacker and prey in her own songwriting, finds its gospel not by rising above her circumstances but through succumbing to her complicity. “The blood of the man who’s killing our mother with his hands is in me,” she sings. “It’s in me/In my veins.” Her voice sounds genuinely desperate, anguished, like she would rid herself of it if she could.

The version of “Shoulders” on Two Hands is the definitive take, though you can see its spirit in every live performance. During one particularly great video from Philadelphia’s Johnny Brenda’s in 2017, Lenker’s guitar cuts out during the first chorus. She takes it off and, for the rest of the song, is just a singer: pulling the microphone from the stand, closing her eyes, and doubling over as if in pain to deliver the second verse. Instead of picking up her guitar part, Lenker’s bandmates only highlight her absence, drawing your attention to the new void at the song’s core. By the end, all that’s left is Krivchenia’s steady drumbeat and Lenker front and center, sort of jogging in place, as everyone in the room holds their breath. It’s a random technical issue but it’s also a chance for Big Thief to pose their favorite kinds of challenges. How much can we strip away without losing our essence? What happens when our most basic modes of expression fail us? How will we carry on together? On Two Hands, they are unstoppable.

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