I first became aware of Nels Cline when I went to see Wilco a few summers ago as they were touring behind the Sky Blue Sky album. I'd already heard of Cline, mostly through reviews by some of my fellow Blogcritics who have this particular thing for oddball instrumental music and avant-jazz. But I wasn't aware he'd joined Wilco.
Having already seen Wilco a few times previous, you can imagine my shock at the insane, dissonant-sounding guitar I heard this time around, and how it added this amazing new dimension to Wilco's sound. Not long after, I picked up Wilco's Sky Blue Sky, and again marveled at how the guitar on songs like "Impossible Germany" seemed to complete this band like water filling an empty glass.
And that is how I was introduced to Nels Cline.
Nels Cline is one of the few guys out there who can truly live up to the title "guitarist's guitarist," and he proves it in spades on his new solo album Coward. This is not easy listening, nor is it intended to be. In fact, the music here is at times downright difficult sounding — unless you're a very accomplished musician that is. But it is also strangely captivating.
What Cline does on Coward is, in fact, about as far removed from the alt-country vibe of Jeff Tweedy's songs with Wilco as it gets. But it is no less impressive. This is an instrumental album where Cline veers from the sort of quiet, poetic acoustic guitar pieces that would be right at home on an album by say, Alex DeGrassi, to the experimental avant-jazz you might find on the ECM label, to outright noise.
Cline plays all the instruments, which in fairness are acoustic and (occasionally) electric guitars most of the time. But they also include all manner of noise and effect-making gadgets with names like zither things, kaossilator, and something called the quintronics drum buddy.
The result is a record that is not so much one to be casually listened to, as it is one to be almost studied. The music alternates between the soothing and the disturbing, but is nearly always interesting and at times downright intoxicating. Some songs, like "Prayer Wheel," have a quiet, almost meditative quality to them. Others, like "Thurston County," which was apparently inspired by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore seem to be more about exploring the edges of counterpoint and layered noise.
On the eighteen-minute opus, "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent To Heaven," Cline brings together all of these things at once. Here he veers back and forth between the sort of upper-scale harmonics that bring someone like Yes' Steve Howe to mind, and a layered cacophonous wash of sounds played on everything from backward-masked sounding ukeleles and off-tuned Turkish 12-string guitars, to the aforementioned zither things. My only real complaint with this track is the numerous starts and stops.
Things quiet down again on the ECM acoustic-sounding "The Divine Homegirl," which is dedicated to Carla B (Bley, I'm assuming). With "X Change(s)" it's back to the off-tuned harmonics, this time played with blinding speed.
The album ends with "Onan Suite," another seventeen-minute epic where Cline once again explores the limits of his instrument in a six-part series filled with peaks and valleys of layered ambient noise and dissonant effects. This is also the payoff for fans who came to this particular party by way of Wilco, as Cline finally straps on the electric and cranks things up with some absolutely sick-sounding shit.
On an initial listening, I like this record a lot. But listening to all 72 minutes of it in a single sitting requires a lot of patience. It's not the sort of thing I'd recommend for casual music fans. But it leaves no doubt that Cline is a virtuoso guitarist who has a consummate musician's sort of total understanding of his instrument — which he explores to its outermost limits here.