Nels Cline is the epitome of “been there, done that”. A musician’s musician, he cut his teeth in the ‘80s playing in a variety of jazz bands with (and without) his twin brother drummer Alex before moving on to more alternative/punk territory with collaborators like Mike Watt and Thurston Moore. As a solo artist, sideman and band member, his angular, deft guitar playing was the linchpin of countless recordings by an enormous variety of artists.
This 18-track, 80-plus-minute set pays homage to iconic muses: Henry Mancini, Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, Gary McFarland, Jimmy Giuffre, Jim Hall, and more. Uncharacteristically, over 13 covers and five originals, there is little anarchy and no guitar freakouts. Tunes fold into and rise out of one another, emerging with lush romanticism and erotic tension.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: pretty much every music critic on that internet they have now has an idea – accurate or not, it doesn’t matter – of what their typical reader looks like. For example, you are reading Drowned in Sound so I imagine you are aged 22-40, live in north London (probably Stoke Newington) and are better looking and more stylishly (though probably not better) dressed than me. And, whether you admit to it or not and are a fan or not, you’ve probably listened to Wilco.
Journeyman virtuoso and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline shines on Lovers, a carefully orchestrated jazz opus 25 years in the making. Cline's new record spans 18 instrumental tracks that evoke vivid feelings of wistful romanticism and passion, and his guitar work is beautifully expressive throughout.The expansive double album features an ensemble of 23 musicians conducted by Michael Leonhart. The production is superb, allowing each instrument to be heard distinctly without becoming overbearing.
Fans of Nels Cline are accustomed to his adaptability. After starting his career in jazz’s progressive currents—and playing alongside saxophonist Julius Hemphill—the guitarist later became a member of Wilco, starting with Sky Blue Sky. He’s also maintained a feverish schedule as a solo artist: participating in improv-noise summits with Thurston Moore and recording an album with the fusionists in Medeski, Martin & Wood.
Lovers is, simultaneously, Nels Cline’s most ambitious and most straightforward project, which is saying something considering the discography the guitarist has amassed over the last four decades. Yet, even through the most seemingly milquetoast gigs like his steady work with indie icons Wilco and appearances on albums such as The Evening of My Best Day by folk songstress Rickie Lee Jones and the Blue Man Group’s 2003 LP The Complex, Cline adds an angularity and squiggly energy that elevates the material beyond its genre trappings. So, to hear him pluck out simple, fluid lines and play standards like “Glad To Be Unhappy” and “Invitation” with such clarity (not to mention being backed up by a large ensemble of brass and woodwind players) comes as a small surprise, but a decidedly welcome one.
An update of Fifties "mood music," those chilled-out instrumental soundtracks for breakfast in bed with mai-tais and late-night booty calls, Lovers is a departure for Wilco guitar swami Nels Cline, whose side projects generally involve free-jazz freakouts. That's not to say this wordless double-disc set, featuring an all-star orchestra full of sharp improvisers, isn't wildly inventive in its water-colored way. Like Dylan of late, Cline sculpts a number of American Songbook classics.
The Upshot: Wilco fretboard virtuoso steps out with a solo album of originals and Great American Songbook selections that find him expertly connecting sound/song and intimacy/romance. Nels Cline’s Blue Note debut Lovers is a musical bonanza: guitar, the lyrical and the experimental. And it’s monumental when the album’s band lets loose. Lovers is two discs of 18 songs.
Nels Cline — Lovers (Blue Note)Photo by Nathan WestAfter all the experiments — the aggressive lines, the strange runs, the tonal tests — after all that, Lovers might be Nels Cline’s strangest album yet. The double-disc set collects 13 standards (in a loose sense of the word) and five originals, completing a few decades’ worth of Cline thinking this album through. His ambition to create a mood album succeeds, as he spoons romantic flavors amid a candlelit setting.