[Keeled Scales; 2021]

It’s impossible to remove Buck Meek’s solo work from the context of Big Thief. Following a marathon 2018 with the Brooklyn-based band, consisting of two recording sessions and North American and European tours, Meek moved alone to California’s Topanga Canyon. It was here, in relative isolation, that he practiced guitar, went surfing, and worked on new songs (“a process of coming into a new skin”, he told us in our recent interview).

Listeners don’t need to know this timeline to enjoy Meek’s excellent second solo album Two Saviors, though it reinforces his already well-established talents. Meek is a thinker, an observer, a puzzle solver who understands that some puzzles can’t be solved. He weaves his thoughts through a musical space all his own — one that ranges from country twang-infused indie rock to poignant fiddle-led lullabies. Two Saviors is quiet and understated, yet thoroughly enjoyable despite rarely moving out of second gear. It doesn’t need to.

On opener “Pareidolia”, Meek examines an episode rooted in playing the ubiquitous ‘cloud shape’ game with a friend. “The clouds are moving fast / Sippy, tell me what you see,” he sings over soft drumming and endearing piano lines (played by Meek’s brother, Dylan). The lyrics move on to recall more (“When I went to fill the tub / I found you wrapped in linens like a ghost”), and it becomes clear that Meek is recalling the day with a touch of wonderment. On the title track, he follows a couple’s relationship, this time as a participant; “But he won’t catch you, Suzy I’d bet you / He won’t catch you when you fall,” he sings over sparse strumming and a smooth pedal steel, before saying the same about Suzy to her partner, Joe. Is he being an honest friend or an instigator? Meek likely doesn’t know either and is figuring it out as he sings along. 

This lyrical approach is the key insight to Two Saviors: Meek uses characters, their stories, and his interactions with them, to process his thoughts on the human condition. On the jaunty single “Second Sight”, Meek examines the literal and figurative cost of labor through his comparisons to other characters; “My man with the moving van’s looking for a job to do / He’ll work for cheap, but he’ll change you”. Meek’s offering? Help with a need that’s indescribable: “And I work for free / Because love is all I need,” he declares over an uplifting mix of piano keys, bright strumming, and harmony vocals.

Some of this genuity can be credited to producer Andrew Sarlo and the conditions he set before working on the album; recording would be wrapped up in a week, all tracks would be recorded live, and nothing would be played back until the final day. Tracks like the galloping “Two Moons (morning)” literally capture this with chatter and chuckles heard throughout. Meek and his four-member band showcase their chemistry on the jubilant “Cannonball! Pt. 2” with sharp steel pedal melodies, ragtime piano keys, and rough guitar shreds. It’s the album’s most enjoyable, and strongest, track.

Indeed, another strength of Two Saviors is Meek’s ability to deliver his storytelling through varied songs that, nonetheless, establish a cohesive whole. Meek channels his perceptions to humorous ends; “I haven’t eaten since 1999 / it’s a miracle I’m alive,” he sings on the quick, melodramatic “Ham On White”, before it descends into a gritty guitar squall. Meek’s guitar and vocals on highlight “Dream Daughter” are supported by a soundscape of keys and strings that evokes the emotional breadth of Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and the sonic experimentations of Wilco. On the intimate “Candle”, Meek’s words of bewilderment and self-doubt (“Did your eyes change? / I remember them blue”) are made more effective thanks to the sparse pedal steel and percussion arrangements.

Two Saviors was finished in the before-times, when dwelling on one’s thoughts wasn’t a given and recording with a band in a New Orleans house (read: being with other people) posed little risk. Yet, Meek’s desire to learn more about himself and his craft — “coming into a new skin” —  runs throughout Two Saviors. It’s heard on tracks like “Pocketknife”, where following sharp descriptions of a barren, intimidating landscape, he sings over a crying fiddle, “If I make it through July / Thank God for coffee and apple pie.” Whether Meek’s revelation is supposed to be funny or taken at face value is beside the point: rarely does introspection sound so humble.

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