critic’s pick 320: the nels cline singers, ‘macroscope’

nelsclinesingersFrom the groove, drive and lyrical mayhem he has fashioned over the past decade for Wilco to the scholarly grinds and improvs that make up his solo recordings, there has always been considerable stylistic ground to cover within the music of guitarist Nels Cline. One minute is he a crafty rock ‘n’ roller, the next he is revealing the ingenuity of a jazz artist and somewhere off to the side he might be creating a sound sculpture where melody and tone deliciously corrode.

More than any of the four previous albums credited to the all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers, Macroscope serves as an overview. It slides, shuffles and, when necessary, pounds as many of the guitarist’s myriad profiles into song structures as it can over the course of an hour-long recording.

The opening Companion Piece, in fact, pits a few of them against each other over the course of a five minute tune. It unfolds with a soft focus melody and rhythmic lightness that would not have sounded out of place on an ‘80s-era Pat Metheny record. But by the half way point, the skies darken as the tone and pace of Cline’s playing hardens into a trio jam with bassist Trevor Dunn (new to the Singers fold) and co-founding drummer Scott Amendola. It’s as the though the band took a side road through the mid ’70s prog rock exploits of Soft Machine.

There is similar hemorrhaging during Red Before Orange. There, a smooth lyrical lead with the sunny finesse of Wes Montgomery steps into a scorched, wah-wah induced torrent before retreating again into sunny radiance.

Overall, there is an arc to the mischief of Macroscope. Even with its disturbances, the first half of the album has Cline, Dunn and Amenola following the straight but not-so-narrow practices of a serious jazzer. The second half, though, is another trip altogether.

The 11 minute Seven Zed Heaven is rooted in rumbling fusion but remains open to modest manipulation that discreetly references Weather Report and, in its more devious moments, early ‘70s Miles Davis – that is, until an almost Celtic flavored drone washes ashore. That causes Amenola to eventually release his inner John Bonham. The result is merry, beat-centric chaos all round.

That says nothing of the outer space hiccups and celestial noise that coalesce into the elemental garage rock bashfest of Hairy Mother or the layers of disassembled racket that tumble down during the album closing Sascha’s Book of Frogs. That’s when the seeming sense of melodic order that was obeyed so readily at the onset of Macroscope

de-evolves and the full scope of Cline’s music reaches it messy, artful but still fascinating conclusion.

de-evolves and the full scope of Cline’s music reaches it messy, artful but still fascinating conclusion.

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