As the layers of Epiphyllum envelop the opening moments of Nels Cline's exemplary new solo album, Coward, like layers of fog, we might think we know where the crafty guitarist, honorary avant-garde hero and full-time Wilco member may be going. The tune unfolds as a drone that is seemingly unrelenting at first. On one hand, it sounds like No Pussyfooting-era Robert Fripp. But warmth soon soothes the tune in a way that brings to mind the washes Andy Summers employed on some of The Police's more adventurous material.
The joke is eventually on us. Where many of Cline's recordings and concerts outside Wilco delight in constructing sounds from scratch and then setting fire to them, Coward is more like a scrapbook. Once Epiphyllum's heady ambience runs its four-minute course — which, depending on your sense of taste and reference, is either contemplative or queasy — Cline is off on a new adventure.
Songs like Prayer Wheel and The Androgyne are acoustic and surprisingly melodic vignettes — real blindsiding surprises for fans that have championed his more explosive electric improvisations. The tunes possess a jazz-folk feel that is both primitive and progressive, like the '70s and '80s recordings of the great ECM guitarist Ralph Towner, but without the classical flourishes or piano counterpoint.
What does recall Cline's past exploits is the texture to the tunes on Coward. The nearly 19-minute Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent to Heaven opens with a sharp, angular stroke on strings. From there isolated acoustic notes dance about in wintry patterns that create equally offsetting, but still beguiling harmonies. Then denser percussive strums intrude and conquer the tune's delicacy until it collapses.
From there, Coward heads to the cosmos for the 17-minute suite Onan. This is where the vocabulary is more akin to the Cline we know. While the suite zooms from a spacious electric chill to an echoing dialogue of voice and spacey twang, it winds up in bedlam via a segment aptly titled Interruption: (Onan's Psychedelic Breakdown). Sounds reverse, scratch, stretch and crash. The following segment, Seedcaster, places power chords in a blender for a montage of electric chatter, guitar honks and odd percussive punctuation. It's a bit of Frank Zappa-esque frenzy — buzzsaw music, if you will — that makes the rest of Coward sound almost intimate.
Maybe a better tip-off to what sits within the 72 minutes that make up Coward is a glance on the CD sleeve at the instruments that make up these compositions. Aside from the requisite acoustic and electric guitars, Coward contains Sruti boxes (clues, no doubts, to the brief Eastern accents that slip in and out of the album), “autoharp/zither things” (you got me), “megamouth” (isn't that a kind of shark?), a Kaossilator (a phrase synthesizer) and the “Quintronics drum buddy” (a light-activated synthesizer with oscillators that operate, in principal, like a drum kit).
Come to think of it, the ingredients don't spell things out on Coward either. Its textured sounds and rich balance of improvisational spirit and compositional drive are all products of a single artist's resourcefulness. Match all that with a discreet musical cunning that makes Coward, sound, above all, playful, and you have one-man-band music that reaffirms Cline's stature as a visionary guitarist and sound architect.