Nels Cline Singers
The Giant Pin
f you know Nels Cline at all, it's likely because the guitarist joined Wilco on tour in support of their album A Ghost Is Born. Working with Jeff Tweedy and company marks a change in direction for him, but it could be the step that finally brings him his due. Since 1979, Cline has performed on over 120 recordings, increasingly often as a bandleader (including four times this year). Pinning him down to a genre over this stretch is an impossible task, as he blends jazz, classical, rock, noise, electronics and whatever else he gets his ears around. The Giant Pin is the second release from the Nels Cline Singers, a trio that includes no vocalists (although Deerhoof's Greg Saunier makes a guest appearance). As with their first album, Instrumentals, the Singers create a sound that's avant without being unintelligible, noisy without being amelodic, and jazzy without being jazz.
As the disc opens with "Blues, Too", the band doesn't hint at the strangeness about to come. Cline sounds like the latest member of the jazz guitar tradition that runs from Charlie Christian through Wes Montgomery. Cline plays well, but he doesn't create abstract sound; he merely plays smart runs and tight lock-ins with contrabassist Devin Hoff and Scott Amendola's aggressive drumming.
The trio quickly dispels any thoughts that this album's going to stand on jazz feet as the second track, "Fly Fly", disintegrates amid Amendola's solos and Cline's alternate picking. Cline puts both metal and country into his playing as the trio members improvise their own ways through the song. Just as the piece has a chance of finding a unified voice, Cline starts stomping pedals and he's off, chased by Amendola's shift to an industrial sound. Throughout the track, the band members never lose touch with each other completely, staying close enough to hone in on driving riffs like the tom-heavy moment three-quarters of the way through. It's the type of song you'd use to explain the "controlled chaos" cliché to someone.
Cline's a brilliant musician, and he's confident enough to surround himself with other very talented performers. Hoff (who records regularly with Xiu Xiu, among others) shines with both his fingers and his bow, and he gets featured on "The Ballad of Devin Hoff." The track's slow tempo and the other artists' quiet support allows Hoff to pluck a memorable melody filled out by his own low-end runs. The piece never really takes off, but the group adjusts tempo and dynamics enough to keep it interesting and suspenseful. By the end of the number, Hoff is sawing a moving line while Cline threatens to squeal, but the Singers rein themselves in and get back to the main melody. "The Ballad of Devin Hoff" doesn't actually showcase the title man's best work, but it does let him set out a nice sampler.
Amendola—who spent an extended stretch in two Charlie Hunter groups—provides percussion, live electronics, and even electric mbira (an African keys instrument). He doesn't take over any particular track, but he's an integral part of all of them, knowing when to stay steady and when to get off the beat, often playing a lead style of drums. His fills are quick and perfectly placed.
With a trio this tight, it's a risk to add a guest musician, but the ubiquitous soundtracker, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion fits in well on "Something About David H." and "Watch Over Us", mainly by staying out of the way. On the former track, Brion adds subtle keys to an elegy for a departed friend of Cline's. Brion again simply creates atmospherics on "Watch Over Us".
As good as those tracks are, the Nels Cline Singers do their best work when they're freaking out. "Square King" has an incredible guitar-based hook, but Cline lets himself run free, only to return to this root to remind you that this jazzy, technically proficient group can just plain rock. The whole time, Amendola sounds as if he's playing in a different time signature, yet he never loses the groove. Hoff holds his bandmates together with steady playing (in fact, the only thing keeping this song from being a perfect recording might be that Hoff's a little buried in the mix). It's on tracks like this one that the band shows its fullest range of skill and energy, playing well enough to almost make you forget about that gig that Cline has on the side.