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11/19/10

Nels Cline DIRTY BABY

DIRTY BABY is less an album than a specially packaged coffee-table-style art book—an endlessly fascinating one. Guitarist-composer Nels Cline musically interprets 66 of American pop artist Ed Ruscha’s “censor strip” paintings (included in the packaging) in two volumes, “Silhouettes” and “Cityscapes.” Both discs scintillate, albeit in very different ways.

The disc labeled Side A (“Silhouettes”) takes on all 33 Ruscha works in a single long composition, broken down into six movements and played by a nine-piece ensemble. Mapping the development of American civilization, the music progresses from guitar (Cline, Glenn Taylor), banjo (Jeremy Drake), harmonica (Bill Barrett) and organ (Wayne Peet) to loops and electronics (Scott Amendola, Cline on his Quintronics Drum Buddy), keyboards (Jon Brion) and synthesized-sounding drums and percussion (Amendola, Danny Frankel). Still, the entire piece projects an earthy and beautiful Americana, but one that functions better as a standalone than in tandem with the Ruscha paintings, which feature American wilderness slowly replaced by ever-more-complex urbanization. Even as the soundtrack to a slideshow or film, the effect is liable to be lost.

On the other hand, the 33 miniatures of Side B fit perfectly with Ruscha’s “Cityscapes,” which are in fact monochrome canvases with censor strips corresponding to the hostile words in their titles. Performed by a 10-piece group with Cline, Drake and Amendola the only holdovers, these snippets—the longest by far is 3:34—run the gamut: alt-country (“No Mercy”), percussive free jazz (“Hey You Want to Sleep With the Fishes?”), metal (“I’m Going to Leave More Notes and I’m Going to Kick More Ass”) and Zappa-esque modern classical (“Want to Get to Know My Boiling Point?”). Not only is Side B an unqualified success, it’s great fun.

Ruscha paintings aside, however, DIRTY BABY is exceptional work: easily digested experimental music that shows Cline’s stylistic skill, imagination and boldness.

Originally published in December 2010
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