The primary meeting place for saxophonist and bass clarinetist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld is Arcade Fire. She is a permanent member; he often plays with the band on tour. That said, both record for Constellation as solo artists. Never Were the Way She Was was written and recorded live in the studio with no overdubs or loops. Both artists bring the personas displayed on their own recordings, but to new ends. These eight pieces are songlike, despite the spontaneity of their settings. Stetson's circular breathing technique and his physical approach to getting sound from the saxophone's finger pads create both melodic and rhythmic pulses and possibilities, though both players trade places in responsibility for the latter. Neufeld possesses an inherent lyricism in her tone, but there is always the suggestion of coiled tension. On "Won't Be a Thing to Become," his circularity offers a modal pulse that changes keys slightly and slowly while Neufeld gradually unfolds mid-register lines into a melody. Her singing voice shimmers in from the margin wordlessly. "In the Vespers" begins almost as a reel while Stetson engages Steve Reich-ian repetition, freeing up both players to explore rhythm, harmony, and texture. "With the Dark Hug of Time" commences with her haunting violin in the center. Amid its spacious echoes, Stetson plays slow, droning single notes and splutters that establish a pattern. She begins to engage with its fringes as he picks up the tempo and tension, adding more percussive tones. She responds in urgent yet lyric legato. When she begins to spiral out from the form and aggressively improvise, Stetson stretches the tonal frame to the breaking point. His more primal, aggressive pad work on "The Rest of Us" is answered by a sawing, frenetic drone from Neufeld. The pair almost approach techno in their disciplined repetition, but fluctuations, though slight, are striking as her voice dips in and out, stray notes fall from the horn, and echo drenches the violin's middle register. The set's long title number is elegiac. Neufeld's violin is supported by long, hushed tones from Stetson. He reaches deep into the lower register of the baritone sax to dig out contrasting (yet never clashing) sonorities, illuminating her wordless singing voice that emerges and retreats. The track never generates heat and doesn't need to; it remains elegantly somber, languid, yet there is the trace suggestion that something darker lies outside its frame. If there's a complaint about Never Were the Way She Was, it's that it's too brief. These pieces last only as long as they hold interest for the players, though they all create a real desire for more in the listener -- which is no complaint at all.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek