Record Review: Wilco's Nels Cline and Twin Bro Alex Cline Issue Dueling Solo Albums on the Same Day
Nels Cline / Coward / (Cryptogramophone)
Alex Cline / Continuation / (Cryptogramophone)
There's something funny about the fact that local heroes the identical twin Cline Brothers -- Nels (Wilco/Geraldine Fibbers/Scarnella/Nels Cline Singers guitarist) and Alex (Alex Cline Ensemble/Julius Hemphill/Arthur Blythe drummer) -- reside arguably as the reigning kings of their respective instruments, and without a doubt are two of the most important composers in the jazz/rock/contempo/non-genre spheres of here or anywhere one might be looking.
Perhaps in memory of their recently departed mother, Thelma Nelson Cline, the brothers are both releasing solo albums today on the high-class Cryptogramphone label, run by fellow prog-jazz/other stalwart Jeff Gauthier.
Alex's Continuation reflects, as he describes it the liner notes, an effort at bridge-building between himself and his teachers, friends and family. Over seven lengthy tracks, he establishes what has to be termed a new kind of jazz, though especially for such a spiritually centered persona such as Alex Cline, such a tag would feel rather non-holistic, or limiting.
His small ensemble of Gauthier on violin; Myra Melford on spare piano ornaments; elegiac and growling cello by Peggy Lee; and bass sympathies from Scott Walton brings a filigreed grace to tracks such as " "Nourishing Our Roots," whose gong-garden intro invites us into its resonant space. The "minimalism" from all, including the somewhat dolorous theme layed out by Gauthier and Lee's sawing strings, grows slowly together, accrues a spiderwebbed then filmy density; each part -- ivory piano droplets, skittish cymbal strokes -- falls like the rain, like dew dripping off petals.
These pieces range up to 18-plus minutes in length, and unfold amid clopping blocks and vibing bells, things that jangle and rattle; they open up as if allowed to reveal themselves, which would be an obvious goal of any serious composer. But what's intriguing in this music is what is being revealed: one might feel a chill, almost but not quite scary. In the noirish "Clearing Our Streams," awash in harmonium and building to great unison melodic lines of vaguely Middle Eastern modality, it is as if behind the music, silence lurks... and silence, of course, is never empty.
These tracks trace a space where one can be, or is, thus urging a spiritual aspect to the proceedings. A lot of things happen - string harmonics, percussive events, piano mist -- but you must wait, patiently or impatiently. There is a miraculously nuanced, intelligent way in which these players' understanding comes through, never a hint of literalness about what settings or emotions might be evoked. And a piece such as "Fade to Green," like the others, can suggesting real turmoil -- conflicting emotions, at least. This has everything to do with Alex's view of the yin and the yang, I think, or of the reality of having to continually make adjustments. His music's real-life analogy is real life, then. And his drumming -- simply immense in both agility and implication -- is a force of nature.
Similarly establishing new symmetries in unpredictable ways, brother Nels drops the mystifyingly titled Coward, single-handedly redefining ... well, most anything to do with music. A one-man maelstrom of acoustic/electric 6 & 12-string guitars, plus autoharps, a small mountain of effects and, crucially, the Quintronics Drum Buddy electronic device, Nels lures us through 15 pieces of instant composition that reveal frighteningly vast stores of untapped musical lava flowing within his famously fertile imagination.
Seriously, Nels' contribution to the arts of guitar playing and extended composition, among other things, are hugely significant on this disc. Smaller pieces such as "Epiphyllum" are calming drone-loops on "sruti boxes" and guitars that expose tiny abstract "events"; "Prayer Wheel"'s lovely acoustic and electric steel guitars give a pink/orange sunset air and hypnotic ostinato-ing that is an object lesson in how to be pretty without drowning in saccarhine. Oddly (SY-like) counterpointed, the slide-acoustic "Thurston County" is filled with flies in the sonic ointment and feels impulsive, shapewise, alternatively meandering and to the point. When Nels starts to strum in a "pop" sort of way -- and why not? -- he's stumbling upon chords and changes that will evoke for years; "The Androgyne" and the six-part "ONAN" suite both pull apart splayed, spiky chords and pointillist sounds -- deliberately alien landscapes, and fascinating exercises in harmonic juxtaposition.
The "emotions" evoked in such pieces are knotty, nowhere more so than in the lengthy "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent to Heaven," for the murdered microtonal guitarist, which explores "off" intonations as if revealing heartbreak in another room on another plane entirely. This and "The Divine Homegirl" suggest that there is an accessible but genuinely new melodic/harmonic sensibility possible. (John Payne)