Willie Reviews Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich’s “A Tangle of Stars”

Willie Reviews Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich’s “A Tangle of Stars”


Guitarists Mary Halvorson of Code Girl and John Dieterich of Deerhoof come together on a series of endearingly strange compositions that stretch the limits of the guitar. Here’s RPM’s review:

Sustained notes are few and far between on guitarists Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich’s A Tangle of Stars. They play to the strengths of the guitar, whose reverberations, in their natural state, will eventually decay. So why not snuff them out and barrel onward before they can? Everything that occurs must occur stepwise in a quantized space, and the music is all the more interesting for it. The duo’s emphasis comes from interaction and repetition, dueling and cooperating in a strictly bounded arena. When ideas emerge, whether from one of their compositions or from an improvised melody, they interfere like sound or ocean waves, adding and subtracting rhythmically. On top of this, and perhaps because of it, A Tangle of Stars sounds like a series of desperately lost but always confident characters caught up in twinkling, magnificent surroundings. It’s the audible differences in the way these two highly weird guitarists compose and play that makes the voices of these songs so clear and intriguing.

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The two split composing duties, trading off compositions while sharing in the arrangement and performance. Often, Halvorson’s compositions feature a brash lead melody that just won’t budge, and the track works to fill in the space around it. “drum the rubber hate” sounds like Irish pub music from the surface of a distant asteroid—the kind of place where they yell “arragh, my space controller needs more juice.” Its reel-like melody line is one of the more placeable aspects of the album, but it devolves into jazz scales and harmony lines just out of sync with the concept. All the components for a folk rock tune are there, but it holds out against that definition, fighting tooth and nail.

Her “ghost poem” is freer in its lead qualities, spreading out in unbounded phrases, but still insistent. An essential quality of poetry that makes it such is the way it positions itself with tangible hints, then, after preparing the reader, dives into oceans of complexities. The initial ghost voice on “ghost poem” is a Halloween soundtrack of a beast, but the introduction of the second guitar and later chorus of softly wailing notes rounds it out into abstract associations.

That’s not to say Dieterich doesn’t try some of the same tactics in his compositions. His up front imagery is just as evocative, but his deeper focus hones in on interlocking parts, conversing equally. “my mother’s lover” carves out a place in the drums and synthesizer for clipped guitar riffs. “short knives,” one of my favorites from the record, is surely horror soundtrack material. I don’t know if it’s just my October brain, but it reminds me of low-fidelity VHS transfer of some vaguely moral slasher film: my imagined placement for the song is during the pivotal scene where the surfer everyone loves suddenly goes mad. And really, everyone should have seen it coming because his internal failings were represented by his long hair and sly smile. But it doesn’t matter because now he’s chasing a few of his friends down the boardwalk.

John Dieterich and Mary Halvorson, photo by Satoru Eguchi

One of the most outwardly traditional tunes on the record also comes from Dieterich. “lace cap” resembles an old time poem—a kind of “ode to lace cap.” The way it’s played as an air insists that the lace cap simply is, and no more, for why must it be? The spidery flourishes that angle outward from it approximate a lace cap in all its inaction. The accompaniment is simple, gentle and even. Dropping all contest and drama, it marks a point of pause in the album.

When Halvorson and Dieterich combine their playing, they are nearly always separated ever so slightly. This intentional shift is indicative of the project as a whole in that things are out of phase: melody and harmony, guitar tones, and the order of their compositions. The effects stamped on are all reverberation and repetition, opening up the sound stage to mishearings and mistakes. “Undercover Meltdowns” features their two lines doubled in a tight interval that can’t resolve no matter how far it descends. Tied together until the end, they plummet easily. Nowhere is this better represented than on their one collaborative composition, “better than the most amazing game.” By far the longest and definitely the least coherent, none of the instruments ever mesh rhythmically, and it’s a hard listen even for the most adventurous. Still, the great joy of the project is unwillingness to compromise. You’ll be shocked and you’ll be delighted, and you may feel very differently about certain parts versus the whole. But that will just have to be okay, okay?

Score: Going on a solo mission to space and realizing you only packed construction paper.