The Nels Cline Singers: Beyond Feedback
Teen spirit should never go undervalued in rock 'n' roll, but the music as it exists in 2010 also makes a strong argument for middle age. Case in point: Wilco, whose intelligence and durability just wouldn't make sense coming from twentysomethings. Since 2004, the band's expert balance of Americana and exploratory rock has had a lot to do with guitarist Nels Cline, whose age (54) should really be considered on the more forgiving terms of jazz and experimental music. Before Wilco, Cline had carved out a considerable reputation in adventurous jazz and rock circles, working with everyone from Julius Hemphill and Charlie Haden to Mike Watt and The Geraldine Fibbers.
Like his pal Bill Frisell or colleague Marc Ribot, Cline owns a style that's as adaptable as it is unusual. Part of what he offers is in line with the school of noise guitar innovated in part by another friend and collaborator, Thurston Moore: Cline relishes the peculiarities of the Fender Jazzmaster, and has a profound fascination with discordant sonics. But his interests and abilities extend far beyond feedback. As a soloist in rock and fusion settings, he avoids blues-rooted cliches; his attack is physical and his phrasing abrupt, often punctuated by shrewd use of the guitar's tremolo arm. Cline's application of pedals and other electronics is so involved that they become instruments unto themselves, yet he can deliver a convincing approximation of cool-toned jazz playing.
All of this can be heard on Initiate, Cline's new album featuring his longstanding working trio of drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff (the funnily named Singers). A double-disc set -- one studio, one live -- recorded by Ron Saint Germain, it includes Cline's original music along with compositions by Carla Bley and Joe Zawinul, and is punctuated by special guests, among them Yuka Honda and members of Deerhoof (who play percussion on one live track). It might be the best available entry point into the guitarist's large and challenging catalogue.
An early highlight of the studio component is "Floored," an urging, groove-driven vehicle for Cline's scurrying, wah-wah- and fuzz-saturated leads. Amendola and Hoff form a wholly dynamic rhythm tandem, but here they remain largely static, a solid, impellent base for Cline's soloing and freewheeling effects. The overall aesthetic, and especially the taut unison lines that seem to crop up out of nowhere, evokes the early years of jazz-rock fusion, when the music was truly an audacious, psychedelic experiment and hadn't yet been commoditized. (Cline's own playing here recalls John McLaughlin's work with Miles Davis and Tony Williams.) To many, this music was a death knell for jazz; for others, like Cline, it was a new sound worth a lifetime of investigation.
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