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Album of the Week

Review: Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld Honk and Scrape on ‘Never Were the Way She Was’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 28, 2015
Label: Constellation

Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld have given no formal interviews about their brawny new collaborative album, Never were the way she was, which is mostly comprised of a continual throb from his saxophones’ (both bass and tenor) howls and honks, as well as hoary scratches and wails from her violin. But they gave readers and listeners a glimpse into their creative process while talking about the last record the Montreal-based duo — best-known as members of the Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre, and Stetson tours with Bon Iver — made together, the unsettling soundtrack for the 2013 film Blue Caprice, about the D.C. sniper shootings in 2002. “We have a nice contrast,” Stetson told Pitchfork back then about scoring the film. “We cover each other’s weak spots.”

Indeed, Never were the way she was is a forceful collection of eight tracks patiently carving a sonic landscape, like the desert winds of the American Southwest featured in the video for album’s towering centerpiece, “The rest of us.” Within the jazz, avant-garde, and experimental worlds, the two formally trained artists and partners (they live together) stand as distinct yet like-minded as Khalil Gibran’s cypress and oak trees. Stetson has been releasing material for over a decade now, culminating with the third volume of his sweeping New History Warfare trilogy, subtitled To See More Light, in 2013. Neufeld’s debut solo album, Hero Brother, a triumphant free-flow of hair-raising string textures, arrived the same year.

For this album of marathon endurance for its players, Stetson and Neufeld riffed off each other in a Vermont farmhouse attic, a rustic space that gives shape to Never were the way she was’ dark undertones. On “With the dark hug of time,” her violin echoes into a cavernous abyss, its notes scraping against the darkness as Stetson’s guttural groans pull the song down to another circle of hell. The album’s other quiet moments breathe like reprieves between sprints, and sometimes feel like the two are taking a break from the listener’s attention. “And still they move” coasts on Neufeld’s undulating violin tones, and “Won’t be a thing to become” revolves around Stetson’s simple chordal progression swinging between sleepy slaps of percussion, like waves on a boat hull.

While soothing, those quietly elliptical moments aren’t nearly as powerful as when the two agitate each other. Opener “The sun roars into view” has perhaps the most graceful arc of any song here: sounds of rainfall fizzle into Neufeld’s violin see-sawing back and forth over contrapuntal motions from the higher range of Stetson’s horn. The pair push and pull each other into a fevered dream-sweat by song’s end, setting a high bar matched only by “The rest of us,” which gallops like the four horsemen of the apocalypse over a roiling cauldron of bellows and Neufeld’s ghostly vocalizations. It pauses only for a tense call-and-response, as if Stetson’s rumbling had spooked a flock of birds from her violin.

Never were the way she was could build to such frenzied crescendos more often, rather than presumably covering each musician’s “weak spots,” as Stetson says. Because each artist has few, if any, it’s not unimaginable that the album could soar to even more challenging heights. Perhaps that’s because this album came during downtime for both, following Neufeld’s solo debut and the final installment of Warfare, serving more as a cathartic exercise than a challenging artistic experiment like their preceding efforts. Regardless, it’s a cohesive meditation on the legacy of avant-garde greats like Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt and peers such as Tim Hecker — and, of course, an essential part of Stetson and Neufeld’s own impressive canons.