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Dirty Baby

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Album Review

It is easy to see why guitarist Nels Cline calls DIRTY BABY the most challenging work of his career. Called upon by producer and poet David Breskin to compose separate works to accompany two collections of Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha's "censor strip" images from the '80s and '90s, he responded with relish—33 are from the Silhouette series and 33 from the Cityscapes paintings. All 66 are included in a handsome, double-disc package containing three booklets, one of which contains a detailed liner essay by Cline regarding his approach, preparation, and aesthetic. Also available is a large format, exhibition catalog-style hardcover book that contains the music and two more discs of Breskin's spoken word poetry (called "Ghazals") with bigger representations of the images from publisher DelMonico Books·Prestel. Working with two very different yet related series of paintings presented Cline new considerations a as composer and as an accompanist. He worked with larger ensembles in each case. "Side A" composed for Silhouettes contains the six-part title suite. It begins quietly, slowly, deliberately; suggestive more than assertive. Players include Bill Barrett's harmonica, Jon Brion's repetitive synth patterns, and Cline's and Jeremy Drake's acoustic guitars, supported by bassist Devon Hoff and minimal percussion by Scott Amendola and Danny Frankel. They really take shape on "Part II," as electric guitars and a drum kit come to the fore, playing and economically soloing on gorgeous yet simple chord patterns. "Parts III" and "IV" are their mirror images: spooky works that are elliptical with large spaces, moody colors and textures. By "V," the band is vamping Miles Davis-style on a funk riff with Hoff's electric bass leading the charge. For ten of "Part VI"'s twelve minutes, free-form guitar skronk, synth whiteout, and an undermixed rhythm section, smatter and smear the soundscape before Drake's banjo assembles a mutant back porch melody to close. "Side B," contains 33 short tracks — all but one are under four minutes — individually titled for the Cityscape images. (The titles are fantastic, seemingly comic and noirish; but only the latter is true: Cline poignantly recontextualized them in lieu of the Iraq war(s): "Agree to Our Terms or Prepare Yourself for a Blast Furnace," "You Talk You Get Killed," etc. ). Cline employs a larger band that relies as much on winds, reeds, and strings as much as it does guitars, percussion, and effects; Alex Cline plays drums and Brad Dutz vibes, xylophone, and more. These pieces are more fragmented, angular, and aggressive, yet mixed warmly; they're approachable contrasted with Ruscha's prohibitively code-like images. Cline explains that: "These works do not, as in the case of his most famous pieces, have words floating graphically on the picture plane, but rather censor strips which Ruscha himself calls 'dumb blocks,' which stand in for or 'cover over' (conceptually) the words of each picture's title." The erasures imply forced silences. Cline's pieces simultaneously underscore and shatter these silences. The dynamics wider, colors brighter, and textures more layered than on "Side A." The palette is more complex and labyrinthine because of their brevity. Jazz, rock, modern composition, structured improvisation, and restraint play an enormous role, but are anchored solidly by Cline's boundlessly adventurous guitar work. DIRTY BABY is a singular accomplishment, presented in a fashion that demands more of the listener's attention but buy pays off handsomely. It adds immeasurably to the depth of Cline's contributions as a musican — and offers another way of seeing and hearing this body of Ruscha's work.


Born: 1956 in Los Angeles, CA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Up to the mid-2000s, guitarist Nels Cline was probably best known for his work in the group Quartet Music (with brother Alex Cline, bassist Eric Von Essen, and violinist Jeff Gauthier) as well as other projects in the jazz, rock, and avant-garde idioms, and for his general involvement in the West Coast's improvisation community. However, since 2004, Cline has been a member of Wilco, which has opened up a much larger audience for the guitarist than is typical for even the most well-known of avant...
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