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photo credit: Nelscline.com
Avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline gears up for a new album with his trio upon the release of his first solo album.
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Nels Cline

Coward

Produced by Nels Cline

Cryptogramophone

Released February 10, 2009

You either know Nels Cline as the thin-framed lead guitarist for the alt-folk collective Wilco, or as one of LA’s most experimental composers of avant-garde jazz guitar fronting the Nels Cline Singers. Either faction of Nels-fanatics would find something new in the accomplished guitarist’s latest endeavor, Coward. Though Cline’s canon dates back to 1979 (including myriad collaborations, trio projects, and a fraction of the Wilco discography), this is his first true solo album in that he composed all of the music and plays all of the instruments.

The liner notes include a hand-written account of exactly what instruments were used for each recording. Cline took on playing not only 6- and 12-string acoustic and electric guitars (even prepared guitars for a few songs), but a vast array of zithers, sruti boxes, loop units, drum machines, banjo and tenor ukuleles, basses, and even a home-made guitar constructed from a cigar box. Cline mentions on his website that he’d intended to make this record for years — an album solely devoted to rich, layered guitar music — but only got around to doing so now.

His original inspiration for Coward (a title which he’s had reserved for decades) lends itself to jazz albums like John Abercrombie’s Characters and Bill Connors’ Theme to the Guardian. However, Cline’s influences and interests in string music have changed, and thus have contributed to a decidedly different record. Coward contains not only jazz-inspired solo guitar pieces, but microtonal compositions as well. A beautiful duet, “The Divine Homegirl,” sounds like an updated version of a Pat Metheny song from the 70s ECM era. Electric guitar swells in and out of a predominantly acoustic piece that features Cline’s fast finger work and penchant for darker harmonies that modulate rapidly.

As the album progresses however, a later track called “The Nomad’s Home” sounds like a gradual trip from the UK to India. The composition begins with a slide guitar gliding over a chord-heavy acoustic arrangement. Cline’s soloing becomes more fragile throughout the song, balancing on its toes while the acoustic guitar is fingerpicked. At the climax, the slide guitar speeds up with the backing guitar, and jumps intervals reminiscent of South Indian carnatic music. The fast lead line towards the end echoes Cline’s growing interest in international music and Indian scales. Cline’s natural disposition for long, droning sounds finds its way into the hypnotic opener, “Epiphyllum” as well as portions of the near 18-minute mini-opera, “Onan Suite” (which is divided into six separate tracks on the album).

While Cline uses Coward as a method of exploration and experimentation for the guitar, there are also plenty of songs written to pay tribute to friends and loved ones. The third track, “Thurston County,” is an obvious tip of the hat to Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a colleague of Cline’s. The song begins with a humorously sinister arpeggio supplanted with sirens that sound like a misbehaving theremin. Delicate chords replace the arpeggio, and the sirens (Cline’s clever use of a lap-steel) succumb to gorgeous, emotive soloing. A distorted guitar revisits dissonance, culminating in an idiosyncratic guitar riff that precisely mimics Moore’s playing in Sonic Youth.

The resemblance to Moore’s style is uncanny and convincing. Cline evokes sorrow in another 18-minute epic “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven,” whose eponymous hero was a friend of Cline’s, and was brutally stabbed to death two years ago. Cline admits that he wept for his friend while listening to the final mix of this song. Prepared guitars provide a more percussive sound in this song, and the listener could envision Poole marching slowly into the depths of his afterlife.

With a runtime of 72:31, Coward is not easy to consume in one sitting. As an album, the sequencing seems arbitrary to me. Perhaps Coward wasn’t written to play front-to-back. Rather, it could be a collection of Cline’s long-awaited guitar project. Regardless, this is a unique piece in the Nels Cline catalog and may be the only item like it for many years to come. Now that Coward has been released, Cline is already back at work with his trio, the Nels Cline Singers, and they plan to release an album later this year.