Listening in on a pair of old friends catching up
For all the spontaneity it boasts, The Quickening took a considerable amount of time to get off the ground. The impetus for this album by guitarist Marisa Anderson and drummer Jim White (of Dirty Three) goes as far back as 2015 when the pair were touring together—Anderson performed solo, while White performed with another project of his known as Xylouris White—and decided to collaborate. It wasn’t until late 2018 when the recording sessions took place, and the album wasn’t released until the summer of 2020.
The duo didn’t rehearse or perform together at all for the three years between the conception of this project and its recording. Their goal was total improvisation, built on interwoven “melodic flourishes” and the trading of “conversational exchanges.” The keyword here is “conversational.” Both musicians trade melodic lines like they are retorts, and Anderson is especially skilled at imitating speech patterns in her playing. It never comes across as self-indulgent like so much improvised music does, as White and Anderson both know when it’s time to scale it back and let the other shine.
The duo’s synergy leads to plenty of exciting moments, like on the opener “Gathering’,’ which achieves a lush, purifying climax through the dense interplay of Anderson’s hazy, watercolor guitar drones and White’s skittering drums. The piece is transcendent and maximalist, but the duo can be quieter and more subdued when needed, like on “Unwritten,” which highlights their penchant for call and response and “Diver.”
The two best tracks on the record are “The Other Christmas Song” and “Last Days.” The former is loose and dreamy, with Anderson’s watery guitar chords pouring down in cascades, like something from a Sonic Youth track, only much kinder and more inviting. She finds room amidst the downpour to slip in some tasty melodic lines, counterbalanced by White’s machine-gun drums. “Last Days,” on the other hand, is a bit tighter and more focused. Anderson’s roots in Americana are on full display as she plays with a ramshackle, country-fried twang. Still, the duo can’t resist sneaking in a surreal, almost Beefheartian edge, with some discordance here and there and a jarring, angular drum pattern.
If there’s one thing to find fault within The Quickening, it’s that Anderson and White don’t always sustain the excitement, and they occasionally meander. On the title track, Anderson’s dull, colorless acoustic drone doesn’t amount to much (although White’s drum performance is one of the best on the record), and “Pallet” might be a bit too muted to hold one’s attention.
These tracks don’t always lead somewhere. But then again, maybe that’s the point. Perhaps that’s just what it means to have a musical conversation—Lord knows verbal communication rarely leads anywhere, after all. Approach The Quickening like you’re listening in on a pair of old friends catching up and all the little quirks it entails: lulls in the conversation, murmured asides and aimless rambling. Sometimes things pick up, and the pair finds themselves in higher spirits, excitedly recounting old stories, but a great deal of the meeting is spent in comfortable silence. But that’s just part of the experience.