Monday, February 9, 2009

Ben Ratliff on Nels Cline's new disc


If the guitarist Nels Cline had joined the revered and more than semi-popular rock band Wilco in his early 20s, rather than in his late 40s, he might never be making solo-guitar albums on the side like “Coward.” This record reflects a far-and-wide aesthetic imagination, one that’s been broadening for a long time.

Mr. Cline’s playing has seriously mixed blood, and when he records multiple versions of himself on electric and acoustic guitars and about a dozen other stringed instruments, he becomes exponentially more mongrelized. He does his version of John Cipollina’s wide runs and fast vibrato; he likes crying slide guitar glissandi, looped clumps of distortion and amplifier hum, the clashing overtone sounds of Sonic Youth and the slow, deliberate, almost monastic music of traditional Japanese koto players. But he doesn’t let anything rest in one place. Meditative and minimal as these pieces may be, they’re written with rigor. Hear them once, and you might only be lulled, but one more time and you’ll hear the purpose and symmetry.

“Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven” is the imposing accomplishment here. It begins and ends with long zither chords, and over the 18 minutes between, links together slowly evolving figures, building and ebbing. Mr. Poole, an experimental English guitarist who lived and worked in Los Angeles and who was a friend of Mr. Cline’s, was murdered in 2007; a piece like this seems the right kind of homage to someone who had the patience to fully absorb long-form music. But then much of this record strikes a similar tone: it sounds like both an advertisement and an elegy for deep listening. BEN RATLIFF

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