Watching guitarist Nels Cline attack his electric axe with an egg whisker at his 2005 International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville
performance helps explain the perennial question of how he does what he does, though no single performance sheds a strong enough spotlight on the chameleon-like guitarist's skill. Even when all the guitars and effects used on Coward
Cline's first solo guitar album in his 30-plus year careerare documented, there's still the nagging feeling that even that degree of detail doesn't tell the whole story.
Perhaps it's best left that way. Although most guitarists eventually take the plunge into making a solo recording, few create classics where, rather than being measured against their other releases, the solo album becomes the gold standard against which all others are gauged. John Abercrombie's Characters is one, and while Coward shares little stylistically or aesthetically with that guitarist's 1977 ECM disc, Cline has often shared a strong affinity with Abercrombie's ability to morph into any musical context, while never losing the definers that make him who he is.
Characters reflected Abercrombie's musical position at the time, but was early days; today Cline occupies a far bigger space. Equal parts skronky noise improv, spare ECM-like lyricism, and folksy roots, Cline's as influenced by Jimi Hendrix as he is Jim Hall. Coward refracts the guitarist's many stylistic markers through a personal prism, creating colors and compositional landscapes that make perfect sense, even as they traverse dynamics less likely explored when he's playing in group contexts.
"Epiphyllum" and "Cymbidium" are dense, seemingly static soundscapes that, respectively, open Coward on a dark, foreboding note belying things to come while closing it on a somewhat more optimistic note. In between, there's a wealth of evocative writingranging from miniatures to lengthy, episodic suitesand the revelation of a rich, sophisticated harmonic sensibility, and textural combinations of instruments and electronics that are no less important than the writing itself.
The combination of acoustic and electric guitars on the arpeggio-driven "Prayer Wheel" clearly references Characters, as well as Abercrombie's duets with Ralph Towner. The oblique electronics and abstruse finger-picking of "Thurston Country," which lead to pulsing, acoustic guitar-driven strumming, stray closer to Wilco, while the zither, banjo uke, Turkish 12-string and other more exotic instruments that augment straight and prepared 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars on the epic, 18-minute "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent to Heaven" create a steel-string-driven orchestra with a strong focus on Cline's rich predilection for form over freedom.
Like the best solo guitar albums, Coward transcends being merely an exercise in the instrument's vast potentialthough it is that, too. Impossible to create without Cline's unequivocal virtuosity, the largely acoustic Coward remains about everything but guitaristic acumen. Instead it's an instrumental masterpiece, further positioning Cline as one of today's most open-minded composers, players and musical conceptualists. Despite its not inconsiderable challenges, it retains a surprisingly broad appeal, making it a true classic that will likely keep aspiring guitarists scratching their heads for years to come.
Personnel: Nels Cline: electric and acoustic 6- and 12-string guitars (steel string and otherwise, prepared and otherwise), Srvti boxes, loops, banjo uke, tenor ukulele, zither, fretless cigar box guitar, Turkish 12-string; dobro, 6-string bass, megamouth, electric autoharp, Quintronics drum buddy, Kaossilator effects.