Los Angeles guitarist Nels Cline surprised some of his longtime fans when he joined the rock band Wilco earlier this year. But he has always been involved with rock and roll in some form throughout his career. He's played with Mike Watt of the Minutemen and various members of Sonic Youth. His own solo career has been defined by his attempt to bridge the gap between rock and improvised music.
Cline's second album with his trio, the Nels Cline Singers, is no different. The compositions on The Giant Pin simultaneously evoke traditional jazz, blues, post rock, and free improvisation without any of the awkward deliberateness found on the trio's debut release Instrumentals.
That's a testament to the development of Cline's writing and the group's chemistry.
"He Still Carries a Torch For Her" showcases the band's maturity. They pound out a powerful rock riff before shifting into an ethereal section where contrabassist Devin Hoff deploys his lush arco behind guest Greg Saunier's wordless singing. Then the riff returns again before the group begins a lengthy improvisation featuring peculiar noises, shifting dynamics, space, and drummer Scott Amendola's primal beat.
The tune is notable because Cline successfully combines the immediacy of rock and the open spaces of jazz, while keeping an eye on the avant-garde. Moreover, the group never overplays the tune. They resist crowding it with too many notes, timbres, and bizarrely juxtaposed moodsa temptation that often ensnared them on their last album, Instrumentals.
"Something About David H." continues the winning streak. An open expanse of haunting mood begins the piece. After Cline quietly introduces the main themea Neil Young-style chord progressionthe group undertakes a jazz noir excursion that surprises and astonishes with its straightforward beauty. When Cline plays the theme again at the end of that section, the band slowly builds to a fever pitch that features a Cline guitar solo burning with loss, anger, and remorse.
The Nels Cline Singers end The Giant Pin with "Watch Over Us." The trio, augmented by Jon Brion on celeste and harmonium, navigates the piece's simplicity without forcing any overt dynamic changes or complex playing. Instead, the tune slowly ebbs and flows like the tide, garnering a graceful solo from Hoff and lyrical fills from Cline that amount to a fervent prayer for the impossible possibility.
Neither rock, jazz, nor free improvisation, it is their most impressive moment on an impressive album.
Personnel: Devin Hoff - contrabass; Scott Amendola - drumset, percussion, live electronics, loops, treatments, electric mbira; Nels Cline - guitar; Guests: Jon Brion - chamberlin, tiny sampling keyboard (on "Something About David H.") and celeste, harmonium (on "Watch Over Us"); Greg Saunier - voice (on "He Still Carries a Torch For Her")