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The Nels Cline Singers - Draw Breath

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Artist: The Nels Cline Singers

Album: Draw Breath

Label: Cryptogramophone

Review date: Jul. 27, 2007

With Draw Breath, guitar doyen Nels Cline forgoes the plush jams of Wilco in favor of the wild and wooly licks of his past. This should please those who believe The Jeff Tweedy Show has taken a permanent detour into snoozeville, a complaint I personally reject.

Let’s not begrudge the guy a paycheck: if anyone deserves recompense for decades of musical deftness, it’s Cline. From epic splatter-jazz with his own group(s) to gobs of sideman work, he’s pretty much always on top of his game. Cline’s deckhand duties on Good Ship Watt, C&W romps with Carla Bozulich and jazz excursions with Charlie Haden certainly illustrate his adaptability. Yet the full spread of his talents are best heard on releases bearing own moniker.

This album is the third entry from the Nels Cline Singers, which, ha-ha, features no vocals. Instead, the disc boasts full-frontal jazz assaults tempered by meditative acoustic pieces and brief prog forays. While the individual compositions don’t hang together perfectly, each is riveting in its own right.

Fans of both tempered and unfettered noise should find the second half of “An Evening at Pops’” fulfilling, while opener “Caved-In Heart Blues” showcases Cline’s way with barebones melody, evoking a mood of overcast contemplation.

Blazing licks abound on “Attempted,” which mines the same sonic territory as Cline’s deliciously slippery 2000 effort The Inkling. Pitch-shifted guitar lines engage in a high-velocity game of chicken with Scott Amendola’s furiously blurry drums and Devin Hoff’s hyperactive contra bass.

Cline’s latest borrows from a good deal of his previous work, including his recent Andrew Hill tribute New Monastery, an album marked by scorching experimentation and thematic deliberation. Which isn’t to say Draw Breath fails to carve its own spot in the Cline canon; the six-string athleticism in “Confection” pushes beyond anything I’ve previously heard him accomplish on the instrument.

But this isn’t your father’s fusion, to borrow a cliché. John McLaughlin had his Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love; Cline packs Emerald Arrows of Refined Soul. His chops never outstrip the visceral and emotive character of his playing, rare for a musician at this level of mastery.

The album’s closing suite begins with the steel-string reverie “The Angel of Angels,” and winds up with the delicately eerie “Squirrel of God,” a tune bedecked with bowed bass and layers of effected guitar. In between rests “Reckognize I,” “Mixed Message” and “Reckognize II” — an Oreo cookie of burnished acoustics with spazz-jazz core.

So yeah, Cline’s in Wilco, playing big rooms to graying hipsters and their well-heeled ilk. Bitch all you want, just don’t skip out on Draw Breath.

By Casey Rae-Hunter

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