It’s about time these two guitarists got in the studio together.
Mary Halvorson doesn’t have many places left to go, but receiving a 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (a “genius grant”) merely suggests the composer and guitarist is still ascending. Last year’s Code Girl and Seed Triangular alone showcased her wide range of skills, and she’s continued rolling this year, notably as part of the Tomeka Reid Quartet. Few guitarists are as worthy of attention as Halvorson is right now, but we shouldn’t overlook John Dieterich. His guitar work on Deerhoof consistently mediated the conversation between pop, rock and noise. It’s about time these two guitarists got in the studio together, and the resulting album a tangle of stars utilizes all their strengths.
The pair more or less split compositional duties. Each artist is credited with five of the songs, with “Better Than the Most Amazing Game” being a joint work and “Excerpt from Spatial Serenade” coming from J.D. Robb’s strange electronic piece from 1970. The duo blend compositional and improvisational skills to the point that it’s mostly irrelevant who composed what. “Drum the Rubber Hate” builds on a steady riff and then lets the weirdness coalesce around it. It’s neither jazz nor classical, nor is it third stream. The pair find an almost proggy moment halfway through, but they won’t go to that place either. It’s fun and surprising and, only in retrospect, the sort of thing you’d hope that Halvorson and Dieterich would create.
At the same time, it’s not predictably what you’d expect; a tangle of stars sounds like neither Thumbscrew nor Deerhoof. The duo weave their lines together so cohesively that sometimes it’s clear who plays which part, but sometimes it’s not, allowing the collaboration to go to new places. A track like “The Handsome” begins at their stylistic meeting place, but that’s merely a foundation for sonic twists, the scrapes existing to haunt the jazzier lead. Halvorson’s “Ghost Poem” likewise tends toward the spooky, with more melodic moments offset by distant eerie shudders.
“Balloon Chord” mixes tonal interests with background textures (which, of course, are still of tonal interest). In its two-and-a-half minutes, it sounds like one of the album’s more improvised tracks, but the way the guitars loop back to the key motif and build their musical shapes suggest care. “Short Knives” follows and marks a stylistic difference as distinct as the title suggests. The track, credited to Dieterich, plays to Halvorson’s jaggedness, but the intersection of the lead part and the riff makes for a cut that manages to be tense without losing its relentlessness.
Each track on the album offers those sorts of melds. The quick outro of “Continuous Whatever” ends with a touch of prettiness and a sort of false lullaby (the final note bend offering more of an ellipsis than a period). The pair truly found a new space to work in, rather than simply spending time in each other’s easy spaces. Halvorson’s been fruitful everywhere, and hearing her in this context just adds one more side to her multifaceted work. Hearing Dieterich in this context offers new insight to his own gifts, prompting the pleasurable idea of both revisiting earlier works and hoping for future alternate collaborations.