The Nels Cline Singers: The Giant Pin (2004)
Whatever your opinion of guitarist Nels Cline, his pointedly iconoclastic style leaves little room for argument. That's especially true with the Nels Cline Singers, now on their second release after the appropriately-named and like-minded Instrumentals (Cryptogramophone, 2002). Clearly literate with the improvised music tradition, Cline demands more. Pay attention, listen closely, and learn: in the fractured zone between punk, progressive rock, jazz, electronica, and neo-tribal futurism lie all sorts of loose ends just waiting to be tied together in unpredictable ways. Cline's specialty is exactly this.
You're likely to be thrown for a loop with the opening "Blues, Too" (dedicated to guitar icon Jim Hall), which stutters, swings (sort of), and ripples through three minutes of clean-toned abstraction. The Singers, a trio that also includes Devin Hoff (bass) and Scott Amendola (drums, EFX), can play it clean or dirty.
However, Cline seems to gravitate toward heavier, more bombastic statements, like the "Fly Fly" that follows. But the self-conscious interludes that interrupt the main thrust sometimes seem like ironic asides instead of integral parts of the statement. Attitude is such an important part of postmodern music, and there's a night and day difference between the group's regular blazing thrusts of power and the respites sprinkled in between. Part of it has to do with pacing, which is absolutely key with music of this potency, but the musicians seem to be stepping back now and then to inspect the havoc that they've wreaked.
Of course, not all quiet moments are like this. The beginning of "The Ballad of Devin Hoff" works a lyrical angle, reflectively plying conversation across the stage before the tune settles back onto a relatively noisy rock foundation. "Something About David H." takes its time exploring a dark, spacious zone inhabited by Amendola's various electronic effects and electric mbira, picking up momentum when Cline's guitar steps forward and again rocking hard about six minutes in. By then there's no stopping things. Anthemic, yes. Affected, no.
"He Still Carries A Torch For Her" and "Square King" are decidedly oriented toward the blocky, energetic song form of progressive rock, but with a psychedelic tinge. Scott Amendola, who drew attention years ago with his drumming alongside Charlie Hunter and more recently with his own Cry , knows how to pour on the juice, but he also cultivates a ritual tribalism.
Listeners who are curious what the Singers can do with more jazz-oriented material will find the inspired improv interplay of "Bright Moon" enlightening, especially as it picks up momentum over time. Referring to this piece in the liner noteswhich are highly recommendedCline speaks of joy, and indeed it stands out from the rest in its outright exuberance.
But The Giant Pin is not a walk in the park. It's serious music for serious people, meant to be played loud enough that your chest vibrates. If you aren't willing to give the Nels Cline Singers your full and undivided attention, turn it elsewhere.
Track Listing: Blues, Too; Fly Fly; He Still Carries a Torch For Her; The Ballad of Devin Hoff; The Friar; Something About David H.; Bright Moon; A Boy Needs a Door; Square King; Spell; Watch Over Us.
Personnel: Nels Cline (electric guitar, effects), Devin Hoff (contrabass), Scott Amendola (drums, percussion, live electronics, treatments, electric mbira). With guests: Jon Brion (chamberlin, tiny sampling keyboard on "Something About David H.," celeste, harmonium on "Watch Over Us"), Greg Saunier (voice on "He Still Carries a Torch For Her").