There’s an ambitious feel to most of Nels Cline’s projects, whether or not he’s at the helm. Ambition seems to permeate his language, musical and otherwise. His notes and words continually threaten to exceed their boundaries. Given his penchant for size and scope, it’s strange that Dirty Baby seems to contain itself so well. The 90-minute work flows logically, beautifully, from point to point, never feeling incomplete or overstated.
Dirty Baby is a collaboration between Cline and poet/journalist David Breskin concerning the sensor strip paintings of visual artist Ed Ruscha. Breskin wrote 66 Ghazals — a form of Arabic poetry -- on, or maybe around, Ruscha’s paintings, while Cline constructed music along a similar trajectory. He had only seen a handful of the poems before beginning composition, so it’s all the more credit to him that his music shares the poetry’s layered ambiguities. The only instructions given to Cline by Breskin for “Side A,” the first disc of this double set, is that it should be one unified composition. It is Cline’s chance to bring all of his long-fostered diversity to bear on a larger form, and this he does. The electronics that open “Part Three” are allowed gentle growth out of the previous section, which made use of mainly acoustic instruments. There is an organic, almost chronological, feel to the whole, as thematic material and timbres are repeated and altered. All is summed up by the final groove-heavy sections, which tie in nicely with the spacious opening minutes. It’s almost as if, despite differences, each part has a bit of its predecessors in it -- not surprising, as Breskin and Cline wanted to create a musical parallel to American History. This framework means that Cline can use all the sounds at his disposal in an appropriate context to the narrative.
For the second disc, “Side B,” Cline was to write 33 brief pieces to complement Ruscha’s cityscapes. Even these miniatures hang together well in the face of extreme contrast. Here, Cline lets his imagination loose, relishing the pastiche that informs a good portion of his solo work. Yet, even here, there is surprising unity, some of it brought about by the titles, drawn from Ruscha’s paintings. “Do as I Say Or …” and “Do as Told or Suffer” both make use of extended guitar techniques, hanging together for that reason. More surprising is that each vignette feels complete. “Suffer” explores two guitar timbres, one distorted and one not, in a way that doesn’t leave the miniature feeling like a sketch.
Even considering Cline’s playing, much of the album’s excellence comes down to his guests. Apart from Devin Hoff and Scott Amendola, Cline’s ensembles include his twin brother Alex, keyboardist Jon Brion, organist Wayne Pete and a host of winds, horns and strings that include Vinny Golia and Jeff Gauthier. They recorded the music over three days, and their commitment to Cline’s structures is evident throughout. The music was obviously written for them, and their comfort in executing his wishes makes it hard to believe that Dirty Baby was recorded in such a concentrated manner. Timbrally, this is just another Nels Cline offering with all of its variety and surprise, but musically, it’s his most mature and satisfying.