(141) , Downbeat -- 2/1/09

Pivotal question for today's multistylistic musician: How do you keep versatility from turning into superficial eclecticism? Nels Cline long ago proved his versatility--look what a galvanizing effect his presence has had in the group Wilco, remarkable when compared with his other music from pop session work, jazz (including John Coltrane covers) and free improvisation to noise and his hard-to-describe band Nels Cline Singers. In his gibbon swings from one genre to another, and in the process of blending them together, Cline retains his center of gravity. Perhaps that's because he has a bealthy sense of humility and a funny bone--refreshing, given that with chops like his he could justify being a self-righteous, self-serious creep.

But the good humor--coupled with great taste--keeps Cline in check. On Coward, the centrifugal force of the guitarist's many interests never seems haphazard or unmotivated. There's a bit more ECM to the overall mix than I might have expected, evoking Ralph Towner and Egberto Gismonti in their halcyon days; unlike ECM, though, the sound is never unnecessarily bathed in reverb. Cline doubles acoustic guitar notes with multitracked "autoharp/zither things" on the epic 18-and-a-half minutes of "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent To Heaven," producing a density of string textures and shimmering just-off-pitch harmonies pierced by brilliant single-note runs. With her recent string fixation, PJ Harvey should consider deploying Cline.

Some pieces, like the slide-intensive "The Nomad's Home," have a more song-like organization. Elswhere, there are more ambient, droning excursions, including the bookends that open and end the disc ("Epiphyllum" and "Cymbidium"), while the episodic "Onan Suite" (there's the self-deprecating sense of humor) sports some vent-like, thwacking noise passages, mixed with radiant strumming and '60s psych and progressive rock (Pink Floyd looms large in the dreadnought chording), and a hilarious, ripping finale that begs to be heard. On the post-Branca electric romp "Thurston County," Cline nods at Thurston Moore with chiming strums beyond the nut, crystalline slide and a great anthemic jam that might be the bed for a vintage Sonic Youth song.

John Corbett