When Wilco released the Ashes of American Flags DVD for Record Store Day in 2009, I finally “got” it. At the time, I would have been considered a casual fan, and by that I mean that Being There had brought me in, with all of the subsequent albums being in a state of perpetual digestion.
I’d been reading about how Nels Cline had just joined the band. A puzzling thought, because I just could not make conceptual sense out of this new marriage of Americana and Cline’s more out there leanings. The man who reworked Coltrane’s Interstellar Space into a fire breathing monster was going to combine with Tweedy and company? But then I saw that video. It didn’t take long for that concert footage to put it all in the right perspective: that Cline’s erudite nature made absolute sense inside the boundaries of Wilco’s growing experimentalism.
With Macroscope, the latest Nels Cline Singers release, we hear Cline’s wide-ranging vision unleashed. Maybe one of the reasons why Cline is so perfect for Wilco — and what makes this trio so interesting — is Cline’s ability to morph one concept into another. He makes the transition feel perfectly natural, no matter how much of a left turn it took to get us there. Take “Red Before Orange.” Cline plays octaves over an easy, almost smooth jazz groove. I mean, the bed of this track wouldn’t feel out of place on a Steely Dan record. But then there’s a guitar solo that lays waste to the joint…before dropping right back into the groove. A similar thing happens on the opening “Companion Piece,” which starts off life as a delicately delivered series of chords, which are then overtaken by a particularly zealous guitar freakout.
This version of the Singers, with new bass player Trevor Dunn, returning drummer Scott Ameldola, and a terrific cast of guests — Zeena Parkins on harp, Yuka C. Honda on keyboards, Josh Jones (percussion), and the great Cyro Baptista — allows Cline to visit a lot of new territory. There’s the percussion-driven “The Wedding Band,” the funky and mind-expanding “Seven Zed Heaven,” and the otherworldly (and rockin’) “Hairy Mother.” And speaking of rockin’, the album finishes with “Sascha’s Box Of Frogs,” which goes from clattery to playful to full-on explosive in just a matter of minutes. It manages to be the album’s weirdest and most fun track.
Oh, and there’s actual singing! Well, not a whole lot, really. But Cline does bring out his inner Baden Powell with some wordless vocals on both “Respira” and “Macroscopic.” It’s a pretty cool effect, reminding me a little of Arto Lindsay as well as Nana Vascancelos during the early Pat Metheny Group years.
Macroscope will certainly not be tough to digest for the more adventurous listener. And I’d be willing to bet this will only be a mild challenge to the average Wilco fan, whatever average means. In any event, get ready for some serious mind-stretching.