As the lead guitarist for Wilco, Nels Cline has been turning heads in the rock world with shredding solos that mix twang and dissonance. But that's only part of the story. Cline is also an accomplished jazz composer and band leader. New Monastery, his tribute to pianist Andrew Hill, was one of last year's most acclaimed albums.
His latest effort features the instrumental trio cheekily dubbed The Nels Cline Singers. You can hear faint echoes of the folk-rock textures of Wilco and the winding compositions of Andrew Hill in this music. But mostly the group charts their own course, veering between delicately jazzy pastorals and aggressively abstract noise improv.
Draw Breath is an exceptional 40-minute album. Unfortunately it lasts twice as long. The high points include the acoustic lament "Caved-In Heart Blues," which evokes a Zen koan, where what's left out is as important as what's played. "Confection" is a riff juggernaut, filled with bashing percussion and thrillingly abrasive solos. The moody "The Angel of Angels" quietly soars, levitated a few inches off the ground by Devin Hoff's bowed contrabass.
The least successful tracks tend to be the longest- the meandering "An Evening at Pops'" and schizophrenic "Mixed Message" -but even they contain some stirring moments. "Squirrel of God" enacts this phenomenon in miniature: Six minutes of aimless atmospherics suddenly coalesce into the album's most urgent melody, a surging string of notes that catch in your throat. The Nels Cline Singers can conjure these memorable moments as sure as breathing, but that doesn't meant they aren't also blowing some hot air.