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The Nels Cline Singers is a fitting name for this trio, led by its namesake whose maelstroms of guitar have landed him as one of the most important figures in the contemporary Thurston-Moore-approved jazz/noise/improve scene(s). The Singers, as it were, consist in fact of no singers at all--only a guitar, an upright bass, and drums. Purely instrumental, their irony exists hand in hand with their music, which often explores the sort of self-defecating absurdity that one might expect from a band that is attempting to be as cerebrally un-cerebral as possible.
Then again, it’s not all fun and games with Nels Cline—it never is. His raging free jazz hard-on still penetrates the core of the music, but he also shows tremendous restraint in the more poignant, melodic areas of the album--“Caved-in Heart Blues” being the most notable with its subtle builds and sparkling arpeggios. Still, whatever style Cline decides to take on, he does it with grace, confidence and fluidity (or purposefully therewithout).
The music here thrives in the grey area between any distinctions you’d care to throw at it, resulting in one of the most criminally overlooked releases of 2007. Cline's work with this trio gets better and better with each release. The songs are lively and unpredictable; spontaneous, sometimes bordering on out of control but then the musicians swoop down and reclaim them, sending them in unexpected directions.
Cline's guitar playing effortlessly weaves a variety of influences into the mix, seamlessly reaffirming his trademark style as one of contemporary jazz's most cutting edge and interesting Mavericks. When melodies do appear from out of his unstable narcotic squawk, they usually don’t bother to resolve themselves, instead admitting defeat at the hands of a monstrous drummer whose jazzy chops manage to find relentless grooves within the chaos.
The compositions move with a sense of purpose but aren't afraid to open up space for pure jamming in the tradition of free jazz, often very reckless and bordering on self-indulgence, which is okay because the music has so much fun doing it.
“An Evening at Pops’” wanders aimlessly through curious sections of atonal noises and freakout jams--sinister melodies only appear for brief instances before retreating back underneath the abstract thud characteristic of The Singers’ more puzzling moments--before settling on a propulsive, distorted bass groove that decays into drones and atmospheric squeals to end the song.
When the band isn’t in straight-ahead difficult mode (check the nine-minute marathon of unadulterated automatism that is “Attempted”), they actually know how to tug at the heartstrings. “The Angel of Angels” pulls the album back to solid ground after “Evening” with a gentle acoustic motif, melodic hooks, textural drums and a touching bassline. “Recognize I” takes a similar idea in a different direction with dissonant acoustic chords and a more improvisatory feel from all the musicians.
Cline’s ambition has always been one of his most admirable feats, but here he stays mostly within a familiar vocabulary. The sounds remain unpredictable and extremely inventive, but lack the boldness that could have sent this release over the top. As it stands, with such a minimalistic approach to the music and instrumentation, it is stunning as to how many different sounds, moods, and textures Cline and The Singers squeeze out of their formula.