Sarah Neufeld is perhaps best known for her work with Arcade Fire, but it is her solo work and the collaborative album with saxophonist Colin Stetson (last year’s amazing Never Were The Way She Was) that have most impressed. The Ridge is Neufeld’s second solo album, and although she is once again aided and abetted by Stetson on a couple of tracks, his presence is one of a supportive player rather than a direct collaborator.
Also present on the album is Arcade Fire’s drummer Jeremy Gara, who lends a few of these songs a simple propulsive beat. There are times when his presence is questionable; for example, the title track that opens the album is so direct and basic, and driven by Neufeld’s fine rhythmic attack, that the addition of drums almost detracts from the impact of the piece.
Similarly, Neufeld’s decision to include more vocals this time around seems to be something of a misstep. That’s not to say that her vocals aren’t delightful – her tone is light and airy – but on songs like the skittering and somewhat aggressive We’ve Got A Lot, she’s swamped and superfluous. The drive is coming from the bass tones and the stabbing attack of her violin and as good as the opening couple of songs are, it is possible they’d benefit from being stripped back and left to rely on the dynamic, forceful attack of Neufeld’s playing.
Neufeld’s pieces (on this album at least) seem to be more effective the more minimal they are. As the short but sweet croon of They All Came Down fades The Glow’s picked introduction takes over and conjures up visions of delicate rain on a summer’s morning. The percussion is understated too, serving the song and the textures rather than becoming overbearing. When Neufeld is in elegant mood like this, it’s really quite breathtaking.
Even as gnarled bass tones are introduced as the track progresses, they can’t take away the beauty of those pizzicato lines. There are occasional concessions to wilder influences too. The sawed violin of Chase The Bright And Burning provides a repetitive space for Neufeld’s vocals to inhabit. And as the bass drum pulses incessantly, she vocally conjures up the spirit of Robert Plant, all dazed and confused, and enters into a call and response conversation with the violin.
A Long Awaited Scar exists on its nerves, twitching anxiously, as it flitters delicately, always seeming as if might fall apart at any second. When the drive of Gara’s drums enter the fray, there’s a danger Neufeld’s violin might be crushed like a butterfly on a wheel, but instead it becomes more insistent and certain. It’s the most aggressive piece on the album, and provides the release and enforced structure that perhaps is lacking elsewhere on these songs.
That is not to say that Neufeld’s compositions benefit from pounding structural limits, but in this instance there’s a thrill to be found in her violin fluttering around the certainty of Gara’s percussion. Where The Light Comes in closes the album in some considerable style. Here, Neufeld favours aching and beautiful tones over the percussive style that flavours the majority of the album. It possesses a pastoral quality, and when she’s joined by a droning bass swell the combination produces an ache that truly resonates.
There’s no doubting that The Ridge is a good album, but sometimes the supporting players don’t quite compliment Neufeld’s compositions as well as they might. Yet, when the balance and mix works, Neufeld is capable of achieving some quite transcendent moments.