Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld - Never Were The Way She Was

by Hayden Harman Rating:7.5 Release Date:2015-04-27

If I had to hand-pick musicians for my imaginary all-star backing-band, Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld would be among my first choices. Just a cursory glance at their respective musical resumes is enough to raise the eyebrow of any fan of indie-rock made in the last 10 years. American multi-instrumentalist Colin Stetson has backed songwriting giants like Feist and Tom Waits as well as critically acclaimed bands like Bon Iver and TV on the Radio, in addition to his own excellent run of solo albums.

He is also, along with Canadian violinist Sarah Neufeld, a touring member of post-rock group Belle Orchestre and rock titans (I don’t think they can be considered indie anymore) Arcade Fire. Though not as widely recognized as Stetson, Neufeld has also developed an impressive solo career. In summation, they are both extremely talented and accomplished individually.

It comes as no surprise that the fruit of their first collaborative album, Never Were the Way She Was, is great. Though Stetson’s saxophone tends to take the forefront of the album (even his name comes first, though this is probably a marketing strategy), there are moments when it feels like a true joint effort. Tracks like opener 'The Sun Roars into View' and the title track have sections where Neufeld’s violin actually leads the piece and balances the two instruments in beautiful counterpoint.

Elsewhere on the album, as with single 'The Rest of Us', it’s clearly Stetson’s show. Those saxophone lines sound as if they came from hell itself (or just Tom Waits’ band). Much has been written about Stetson’s virtuosic circular-breathing technique, with many critics lazily name-dropping saxophone wizards like Roland Kirk and John Zorn as influences on Stetson’s music.

However, his true musical influences are the populist minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. You can hear Reich-like pulsating rhythms in 'In the Vespers' and arpeggios that would not sound out of place on Glassworks. You can also hear traces of post-Burial dark electronic music in the mechanical flutterings of his instrument’s keys, which he mics to mimic deep beats.

Stetson and Neufeld try and (mostly) succeed in avoiding the pitfalls of instrumental albums by putting the focus on the songs rather than merely making the album a showcase for flashy playing. They establish an overall mood, but my only minor gripe is that there isn’t enough diversity in feel throughout the album to make it a fully immersive listening experience. However, after considering what they do accomplish together, Never Were the WayShe Was is a solid testament to the immense talent of these two musicians. I hope there is more where it came from.

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