Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Nels Cline’s “DIRTY BABY”

A jazz guy that’s consorted with punk-rockers and avant-gardists of every stripe since the mid-‘90s and earned a payday with arty alt-rockers Wilco since 2004, 50something Angeleno Nels Cline’s maybe the most interesting axe-slinger to emerge in the last 20 years. (To these feedback-scorched ears, the only player who even comes close is Japanese psych-rocker Michio Kurihara.) With 2009’s masterful solo overdubfest Coward, Cline seemed to be hitting his stride, an impression borne out by this year’s encyclopedic half-studio/half-live double CD Initiate.

The music on Cline’s new double CD box set DIRTY BABY (out October 12th on Cryptogramophone) was commissioned by Initiate producer/poet David Breskin -- who produced crucial ‘80s sides for Ronald Shannon Jackson and John Zorn -- to accompany a book of L.A. artist Ed Ruscha’s “censor strip” paintings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. (The box set includes two booklets of Ruscha reproductions as well as a third containing liner notes by Cline and session photos.) The producer had previously worked on a similar project with guitarist Bill Frisell (2002’s RICHTER 858, devoted to the abstract art of Gerhard Richter), and his selection of Cline for this project indicates an appreciation of what may be the guitarist’s great strength: his compositions. (What this isn’t: a “hot lixxx” rekkid.) Cline’s no stranger to integrating his music with visual art, either, having worked with action painter Norton Wisdom in the group Banyan.

Recorded in three days during January 2008, DIRTY BABY consists of an extended piece, divided into six sections for programming ease, on one disc and 33 short pieces -- originally intended to be no longer than a minute apiece; a couple run as long as three minutes and change -- on the other. Inspired by Ruscha’s Silhouette series, “Side A” attempts to musically depict nothing less than the rise and fall of American civilization, and its succession of musical events unfolds at a leisurely pace, while the pieces on “Side B” are more directly referential of Ruscha’s abstract Cityscapes and thus are more episodic, with Zornian quick cuts between moods and musical styles.

Besides Cline’s regular accompanists Scott Amendola on drums and Devin Hoff on bass, the two discs feature different musicians and instrumentation, reflective of their different themes. On “Side A,” the rustic tones of chromatic harmonica, banjo, ukelele, and pedal steel bump up against the ultramodern electronics of Jon Brion’s EMS Synthi, Amendola’s loops, and the leader’s arsenal of effects, Megamouth, and Quintronics Drum Buddy. It’s a ruminative journey, reminiscent of an old ECM side, until the ensemble locks into a couple of mutant trip-hop grooves and proceeds to ride each one for 10 minutes plus. On “Side B,” the musical settings range from primitive cigarbox guitars to orchestral arrangements to feedback meltdowns to heavy metal (used by American soldiers to torture Iraqi prisoners –- fathom that). The relative brevity of the musical intervals means it’s harder to wrap your head around than “Side A,” and a mite disconcerting if you try to do so. Worthwhile, though.


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