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Dirty Baby
Format: 2CD / MP3
Release Date: October 12, 2010
By Doug Simpson March 8, 2011

Guitarist Nels Cline knows no restrictions. He creates music he wants to hear and has attracted listeners who appreciate his aural endeavors as they balance metal, jazz, avant-garde, ambient and much more. Cline is as prolific as he is accomplished and keeps up with innumerable side projects, solo experiments, collaborations and other recorded matter. Among the countless undertakings Cline has participated in or led, Dirty Baby stands out as unique, challenging and fateful.

In a way, Dirty Baby is the summation of Cline’s past since it marries a few of his disparate passions: music and visual art. Cline’s been a professional musician since the late 1970s and an art enthusiast just as long. The two-disc Dirty Baby, though, is poet/producer David Breskin’s brainchild and ranks as a follow-up to his first foray into art/music, RICHTER 858, a 2002 assemblage which concentrated on Gerhard Richter’s paintings.

Dirty Baby, however, spotlights two Los Angeles icons: Cline and artist Ed Ruscha. Cline was born and raised in the city and is a constituent of the area’s jazz, avant-garde and improv music community. Ruscha, on the other hand, moved to Southern California, quickly became associated with the Pop Art movement as well as an artist coalition centered around the Ferus Gallery.

Breskin’s concept was to place a fresh perspective on selected Ruscha paintings by utilizing Cline’s inventive compositions –  sort of a soundtrack for non-moving pictures. Cline’s assignment was to organize a single extended opus (Side A, or the first compact disc) for 33 lesser-known Ruscha images grouped as Silhouettes and then construct concise, self-described nanopieces (Side B, or the second compact disc) for another 33 Ruscha paintings arranged as Cityscapes. In addition to Cline’s music, the boxed set features three glossy booklets – two reproducing Ruscha’s artwork and another comprising musician/session photos and Cline’s insightful notes.

Side A has a real-time sense of storytelling, which Breskin half-jokingly calls “a time-lapse history of Western Civilization, American subdivision.” Ruscha’s cryptically labeled and ghostly Silhouettes canvases were sorted by Breskin into a rough narrative sequence yielding an abstracted chronology of the American saga from the discovery of the New World and western expansion to 20th-century urban and suburban growth. Side B is less formally structured, in part due to Ruscha’s Cityscapes having no images apart from blocks which conceal rather than clarify titles made up of taunts, pleas, commands, irony-laced designations and darkly-humored text.

Using a nine-person ensemble, Side A counts The Nels Cline Singers – Cline, drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Devin Hoff – as well as a number of players Cline handpicked. The 42-minute suite’s arranged with six interlocking portions mirroring the progression of events depicted in Ruscha’s prints. “Part I” and “Part II” highlight folk and country elements accented by Bill Barrett’s chromatic harmonica, tiered acoustic guitars, Wayne Peet’s understated organ and lithe drums/percussion.

On “Part III,” ambient electronics take over. Cline’s effects boxes, dissonant percussion and Brion’s keyboards provide an eerie backdrop building to a cacophonous climax. The proceedings then turn bluesy on “Part IV.” Acoustic guitars employ a Southern-spiked melody evolving into an East Indian motif that’s the set’s most beautiful moment. “Part V” echoes the early 1970s fusion era and seems influenced by Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and the even funkier On the Corner. Devin Hoff lays down a heavy bass line, Barrett offers Chicago-sliced harmonica, Brion spins a Joe Zawinul-esque riff on his vintage EMS Synth as the others supply grooves and assorted underlying din.  “Part VI” escalates towards a trip-hop vibe mixed into a wall of sound with a sinister, dominant overtone. A conclusion of acoustic guitar and banjo unexpectedly replaces malevolent electronics, a shift Cline states in his liner notes reflects how “the land is reclaimed by time/nature.”

The 51-minute Side B is a complex mash-up of modern classical, free jazz, hard rock, grindcore, blues, spy movie themes and a great deal more as The Nels Cline Singers are augmented by trumpeter Dan Clucas, violinist Jeff Gauthier, percussionists Brad Dutz and Nels’ twin brother Alex. The pieces – which range from thirty seconds to three and half minutes – attempt to wed Nel’s written compositions with group improvisation. The result’s described by Cline as “a sort of pastiche approach, pioneered by composers like John Zorn.”

Those who’d like to experience the total realization of Dirty Baby should hunt down DelMonico/Prestel’s 160-page, approximately 12×12 inch hardcover publication, described by the publisher as a trialogue between Ruscha’s paintings, Cline’s music, and Breskin’s poetry.

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