Critic's pick: Nels Cline Singers, 'Macroscope'

Contributing Music WriterApril 28, 2014 

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From the groove, drive and lyrical mayhem he has fashioned over the past decade for Wilco to the scholarly grinds and improvs that make up his solo recordings, there always has been considerable stylistic ground to cover in the music of guitarist Nels Cline.

One minute he is a crafty rock 'n' roller; the next he is revealing the ingenuity of a jazz artist, and somewhere off to the side he might be creating a sound sculpture in which melody and tone deliciously corrode.

More than any of the four previous albums credited to the all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers, Macroscope is an overview. It slides, shuffles and, when necessary, pounds as many of the guitarist's myriad profiles into song structures as it can over the course of an hourlong recording.

The opening Companion Piece, in fact, pits a few of them against one another over the course of a five-minute tune. It unfolds with a soft focus melody and rhythmic lightness that would not have sounded out of place on an '80s-era Pat Metheny record. But by the halfway point, the skies darken as the tone and pace of Cline's playing hardens into a trio jam with bassist Trevor Dunn (new to the Singers) and co-founding drummer Scott Amendola. It's as though the band took a side road through the mid-'70s prog-rock exploits of Soft Machine.

There is similar hemorrhaging during Red Before Orange. There, a smooth lyrical lead with the sunny finesse of Wes Montgomery steps into a scorched, wah-wah-induced torrent before retreating again into sunny radiance.

Overall, there is an arc to the mischief of Macroscope. Even with its disturbances, the first half of the album has Cline, Dunn and Amendola following the straight but not-so-narrow practices of a serious jazzer. The second half is another trip altogether.

The 11-minute Seven Zed Heaven is rooted in rumbling fusion but remains open to modest manipulation that discreetly references early Weather Report and, in its more devious moments, early-'70s Miles Davis — that is, until an almost Celtic-flavored drone washes ashore. That causes Amendola to eventually release his inner John Bonham. The result is merry, beat-centric chaos all round.

That says nothing of the outer-space hiccups and celestial noise that coalesce into the elemental garage rock bash-fest of Hairy Mother or the layers of disassembled racket that tumble down during the album-closing Sascha's Book of Frogs. That's when the seeming sense of melodic order that was obeyed so readily at the onset of Macroscope devolves and the full scope of Cline's music reaches its messy, artful but fascinating conclusion.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at

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