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Critic's pick: Nels Cline

Critic's pick

The Nels Cline Singers


Nels Cline

Dirty Baby

If touring the globe as a member of Wilco weren't enough, guitarist Nels Cline dropped two multi-disc works in 2010 that underscored his ever-expanding sense of musical thrill-seeking.

The first, Initiate, is credited to The Nels Cline Singers, a long-running ensemble that, despite the name, remains a proudly instrumental tribe. The second, Dirty Baby, is one wild ride described as a "recontextualization" of the "censor strip" images of American visual artist Ed Ruscha.

The two projects, in essence, work from somewhat similar bases — meaning that specific artists and inspirations are often cited as catalysts for the music. That's obvious on Dirty Baby. Initiate, a double-disc outing divided evenly between studio and concert recordings, is, at times, a similarly disciple-like affair.

Blues, Too, a highlight of the live disc, honors the deft, lyrical touch of jazz guitar titan Jim Hall. The tune playfully unravels its melodic contours into bursts of swing and improvisational glee while maintaining the light-as-air tone that sits at the heart of Hall's playing. Similarly, we can only infer that Thurston County, also from the live session, bows to Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in the electronically ruptured terrain it surveys.

Elsewhere, the concert music is continually playful as it bounds from beefy jazz exchanges to brutish, rock-fortified grinds.

The studio disc wears its inspirations less obviously as it melts into more ambient, textured and contemplative soundscapes, highlighted by the wintry You Noticed and the guitar/bass dialogue of Zingiber. The latter recalls Marc Ribot's fine 2010 experiment in hushed guitar abstraction, Silent Movies.

Dirty Baby is a sprawling two-disc album that takes its cue not so much from Ruscha himself as it does from 66 of his images. Half of them are introduced in a five-part suite titled Silhouettes that encompasses the entire first disc. The suite is described by Cline in the album's detailed liner notes (contained in one of three booklets; the other two are devoted to Ruscha's images) as "an uneasy version of the anthemic" as it blurs Americana structures into light, bittersweet portraits. The Americana touches reveal themselves like queasy campfire ballads through layers of guitar, harmonica, steel guitar, contrabass and more.

The second disc, Cityscapes, erases the openness of Silhouettes with brief pieces penned for each of the 33 remaining images. It jumps all over the stylistic terrain. Chamber-style reflection, noir-inspired pop, ragged blues, free jazz and unrepentant abstraction accompany the listener as the sounds morph into a wondrous musical quilt.

Four discs on two albums, all packed with enough stylistic variance to keep willing ears merrily occupied all winter long. Roger Wilco that.

Walter Tunis, contributing music writer