If there's a type of Western music you can name, chances are Nels Cline has made it at some point in the last 30 years. He finally became prominent outside of niche circles when he joined Wilco last decade, and if there's any justice, he's finally reaping some long-elusive financial rewards for his music. Being in Wilco has slowed down his other musical output, but only insofar as he now doesn't release nine albums a year. You might expect a guy who's packed so much variety into his career to use each of his groups to focus on a different aspect of his craft; Cline has done that to some extent, but that's not how he uses the Nels Cline Singers. The long-running trio of Cline, bassist Devin Hoff, and drummer/et-ceterist Scott Amendola is sort of a brain-scraping catchall for Cline, and their records often seem like a concerted (and sometimes successful) effort to use lack of focus as an asset.
So of course, for a band with that M.O., the only thing better than a full disc of electronic rock-ish jazz is two of them. Initiate is split into a studio disc and a live disc, but both share similar sound quality and a manic tendency to swing wildly from one thought to another. The studio disc is considerably more layered, making greater use of a considerable array of electronic whirligigs to augment the band. Even within songs, it's unpredictable. "Red Line to Greenland" sounds like jazz until Cline's guitar comes in with a buzzing post-rock riff and the electronics start gasping and wheezing. "Divining" is perhaps the best illustration of the band's restlessness, morphing from contemplative jazz into a bizarre exotica number, with Cline singing wordlessly and multiplying his voice with processing. It's a sharp contrast to the delicate, complex leads he plays on the quiet, even pretty "Grow Closer" just a few tracks later.
Over on the live disc, the band seems to negotiate its set largely by feeling its way toward compositional signposts via listening to the other members. The flow is more discernibly jazz on most of the tracks, especially "Fly Fly", where Cline takes a series of alternately sinuous and thorny solos as Hoff and Amendola slip from straight rhythm to free time behind him. It's probably not a coincidence that Cline uses some very Sonic Youth-ish chord voicings on "Thurston County"-- if Daydream Nation had been a jazz album, this is what it would have sounded like. Overall, the live disc has some of the rawness that the heavily overdubbed studio recordings of the Singers often lack, but it also wanders more and as such spends more time in unsatisfying places.
More than anything, Initiate shows a band whose sense of give and take and intuitive interplay is extremely well-developed. Cline is able to lead his compatriots just about anywhere his mind wants to wander, and they follow him with ease, whether he's merging Frippertronics with jazz, out-krautrocking Wilco, or bringing in David Witham to play a crazy, 1960s-tinged organ solo. Cline may never reach a larger audience working under his own name, but that doesn't seem to be his goal. He's reached a place where he can do his mutant thing to his heart's content, and the results are exuberant, messy, and worth a couple of hours of your time.
Joe Tangari, April 16, 2010