Nels Cline has been sounding like multiple guitarists in concert for so many years that giving him a solo album with studio overdubs is almost unfair.
Yet the local favorite who rose from the improvised and experimental music incubators of the Smell and the now-shuttered Rocco to the amphitheater circuit with Wilco did not take this break from his day job to embark on another cathartic trip through a free-jazz electrical storm. In a bit of a surprise, much of “Coward” offers little of the fire-breathing noise working outs from Cline’s past and instead plays like and elegantly crafted valentine to the acoustic guitar. At over 18 minutes, the album’s swirling centerpiece, “Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven” (inspired by the slain LA guitarist), casts a hypnotic spell while recalling the raga excursions of Robbie Basho, and “The Nomad’s Home” flirts with the back-porch slide-work of Leo Kottke.
But Cline hasn’t left all of his plugged-in tricks behind. The aptly named “Thurston County” mixes a Sonic Youthian churn with squiggling electronics and a weepy pedal steel. Elsewhere Cline’s taste for stylistic mash-ups reaches its peak with the six-part “Onan Suite,” where the shape shifting guitarist seamlessly moves from the hallucinatory atmospherics of “Amniotica” to the guttural fuzz-funk of “Seedcaster” to the twitchy indie-rock drive of “The Liberator” with a host of unclassifiable tours in between. Cline’s outside-leaning tendencies may have intimidated some music fans, but with this challenging yet often beautiful record, they have nothing to fear. -by Chris Barton