The Nels Cline Singers, Draw Breath (2007)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Now that Rolling Stone magazine has recently anointed him a “guitar god,” cutting edge guitarist Nels Cline has progressed far beyond his minor icon status of the 1990’s in the Los Angeles experimental music scene to become something of a known quantity among followers of progressive-minded electric guitarists like Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, James “Blood” Ulmer or David Torn. It also hasn’t hurt that his profile has been raised by his work with guys like Charlie Haden, Thurston Moore and Tim Berne.

Not only that, but Cline has been on a tear in the studio of late, releasing in lead or co-lead form four albums in a nine-month span. His timely Andrew Hill tribute New Monestary came out in September of last year, Downpour with Andrea Parkins and Tom Rainey hit the street in April, Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky was released in May and just a mere six weeks later, we get Draw Breath by his Nels Cline Singers.

For those who don’t quite get the joke, the “Nels Cline Singers” are not singers at all, they are a trio of musical misfits led by the namesake as well as Devin Hoff (contra bass, bowed and plucked) and Scott Amendola (drums, percussion, electronic effects).

While Wilco might be considered Cline’s outlet for more mainstream music in the form of country-flavored rock (especially since his alt-country band The Geraldine Fibbers is ancient history), The Nels Cline Singers is one of his favored vehicles for stretching out. The only rule that seems to guide The Singers—aside from not singing—is to throw every other rule out of the window.

As he’s done so many times before as a leader, Draw Breath is for all intent purposes Cline finding the most outrageous juxtaposition of rock, jazz and avant garde and burrowing himself there. But he’s also too much of a contemplative musician to rely heavily on constant bombardment with power chords or unrelenting noise.

His preferred method of grabbing a stranglehold of your auditory senses is to pull back the slingshot as far back as he can. You are bracing in anticipation for the release and when it finally comes, Cline and his crew typically nail the bulls-eye.

This describes the strategy used to great effect for the opening two tracks “Caved-In Heart Blues” and “Attempted.”

In the former, Amendola’s slow-time thuds sound like distant thunder heralding the approach of a storm. Cline stays low key, rarely rising above a murmer, except for a brief, frightening sound emitted from his guitar toward the end. In the latter, the tracks starts out as deceptively pedestrian free-form bop until Cline’s guitar morphs from a light flittering to shades of Sonny Sharrock not much more than two minutes in. Amendola’s drums get more tumultuous and Hoff is coming unhinged. Cline is an bona fide beast on the electric guitar all throughout. The perfect storm has arrived.

“Confection” comes right out of the chute as straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll for the first minute until it gets interrupted by a softer interlude led by Hoff’s cello(!) Soon, though, the rock ‘n’ roll locomotive gets going again with a concise, blistering Cline solo.

“An Evening At Pops’,” a showcase for the drummer it’s named after, is the sixteen minute epic piece of the album. For most of the time, it’s a bubbling brew of Cline’s feedback and distortion, clanging bells, the intrusion of primitive electronic sounds and Hoff’s dissonant bowed Arc bass.

The sweet noise is punctuated by periodic explosions of Amendola’s volcanic fills buttressed by Clines’ heavy metal rages before it sinks back down again into a simmering reload mode.

The cacophony that is “Pops” is followed by the folky, Americana “Angel Of The Angels.” No real improvising here, the gentle-flowing tune filled by Cline’s rich 12 string, demonstrating The Singers are willing to use a wide variety of methods by which to set a mood.

The calm/storm effect emerges again with the acoustic guitar-led soft number “Recognize I” followed by another explosive, free-jazz track “Mixed Message,” at least explosive for the first half.

True to the title, the song grinds to a half midway through before building back to it’s former grand intensity, only Cline & Company return with a rock attitude. As is found elsewhere on the album, The Singers take the listener on a audio roller coaster ride. “Recognize II”, a semi-reprise of the first “Recognize,” serves as another wind down tune.

The final track is perhaps the only disappointment of the whole album; “Squirrel Of God”is mostly a collection of odd, random noises and Cline’s pulsing guitar that never quite gets off the ground. Although it appears it was about to when Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche appears with a glockenspiel near the end of the song, but, alas, by then it’s too late.

Everywhere on Draw Breath, however, the playing and songwriting is imaginative and forces the listener to abandon most of their preconceptions of how a song is structured and played to get inside these tracks. Because of that, it may be hard for most people to get inside these tracks.

Once you’re able to get inside, though, you don’t ever want to come back out.

Purchase: The Nels Cline Singers – Draw Breath

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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