Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A trawl through Nels Cline's catalog

Like Vernon Reid (born a year after me), Nels Cline (born a year before me) is one of the guitarists I listen to whenever I want to give myself some humility. (Those two guys and Michio Kurihara are my current fave axe-slingers.) Nels actually embodies all of the qualities I find most interesting in players as diverse as John Abercrombie, Derek Bailey, Adrian Belew, Robert Fripp, Fred Frith, John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Thurston Moore, and Sonny Sharrock. A jazz cat who's consorted with punk-rockers, his sound encompasses a gift for melody, fluid jazz facility, pastoral ambience, microtonal dissonance, and pure electronic noise -- pretty much everything I dig except blues. He's also ridiculously prolific; between his bands and sessions, cat has made more records than any sane person could hope to hear. (Titles in Blogger's barely perceptible boldface are recommended.)

I first heard Nels in the early '90s, on Mike Watt's first couple of solo records. He's all over the ex-Minuteman/future Stooge's cast-of-thousands solo debut Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, which I heard while moonlighting at Blockbuster Music and thought, "Hmm, guitar playing sure has changed." (And that record's best guitar moment belonged to J. Mascis, not Nels: the "Maggot Brain" cover with Bernie Worrell.) Then I found From the Velvets to the Voidoids, the MC5's Thunder Express, and the first Wayne Kramer record on Epitaph, and lost the thread while I became re-obsessed with Detroit ramalama.

I picked it up again after seeing Mascis and Watt playing Stooges songs with Ron Asheton at SXSW 2000, which motivated me to find a copy of Watt's Contemplating the Engine Room. Nels pretty effectively carries that whole record, and hearing it affected me in the same way hearing Are You Experienced? originally did: It was hard for me to comprehend that all those sounds he was making were guitar. Nels and Watt also played together in Banyan, a sort of Miles Jack Johnson-like power-trio-plus trumpet with Watt's Porno For Pyros bandmate Stephen Perkins kicking the traps. Their Live At Perkins' Palace is a nice document of their sound, including a cover of Stooges "Funhouse."

I got to hear some of his more recent stuff when I was reviewing stuff for money for a minute near the end of the Oh-ohs. My favorite Nels is probably Coward, his 2009 overdubbed-solo acoustic/electric tour de force, which includes dedications to his Acoustic Trio bandmate Rod Poole (murdered in 2007) and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, with whom he recorded drone-and-feedback improv on 1997's In-Store and Pillow Wand.

The all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers are his current solo vehicle (when he's not making a living with Wilco, whose Sky Blue Sky includes one of my favorite Nels solos, on "Impossible Germany"). Their double disc Initiate is an exhaustive and encyclopedic document that covers the full spectrum of sounds they make, including Weather Report-like funk as well as sonic shitstorms in the manner of Interstellar Space Revisited, a "cover" of Coltrane's duets with Rashied Ali that Nels cut with drummer Gregg Bendian in '99 and rivals Last Exit for sheer intensity. Another double disc, Dirty Baby, produced by David Breskin (who worked with Ronald Shannon Jackson in the '80s and previously did the honors for Nels on Initiate), is Nels-as-composer, consisting of a song cycle and 33 miniatures inspired by the work of visual artist Ed Ruscha.

Nels started his recording career in saxophonist Vinnie Golia's band, and Golia co-produced Nels' rather polite, restrained '88 debut-as-leader Angelica, on which Golia and a trumpet player dominate a selection of the guitarist's ECM-ish compositions. Also on the jazz side but more fully realized is New Monastery, an Andrew Hill tribute record with Ornette familiar Bobby Bradford on trumpet and accordionist Andrea Parkins. In a rockier vein, Destroy All Nels Cline features Nels along with a squad of guitarists, playing dense, knotty, Crimsonoid compositions. And The Inkling, recorded around the same time with a quartet including harpist Zeena Parkins, is mostly-acoustic, jazz-inflected modern chamber music.


Anonymous shipman said...

Awesome, thanks for posting this. It gave me a push to start digging deeper into Nels' discography. I had only heard his work with Wilco and Watt up until today... Good stuff.

(Plus, I was JUST telling the guys at band practice the other night that "Impossible Germany" has the greatest guitar solo of all ti-i-ime!)

2:20 PM  
Blogger Ken Shimamoto said...

What band do you play with? I don't really go to shows anymore, but I'd dig to see you play.

3:58 PM  
Anonymous shipman said...

Oh, we're not gigging yet. Just a bunch of "old guys" (mid-thirties to early-forties) playing punk rock... But if we get ambitious and play a random weeknight at 1919 Hemphill, I'll let you know!

11:48 AM  

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