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Nels Cline Singers' surprising and ambitious new album, 5 Things to Know

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Friday, December 4, 2020

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Though he's somewhat under the radar in the mainstream, rest assured that Nels Cline is a musical force to be reckoned with.

The Los Angeles native is best known as a member of Wilco since 2004, but has performed on more than 150 albums, spanning genres from rock to jazz to country and experimental music. He's recorded with Yoko Ono, Banyan, Mike Watt, Blue Man Group, Wayne Kramer, Rickie Lee Jones, M. Ward, Julian Lage and scores of others, as well as his twin brother Alex Cline. And he leads his own bands, including the Nels Cline Singers.

Last month that group -- ironically an all-instrumental concern -- released "Share the Wealth," the first outing from the current sextet lineup and a free-form endeavor built from studio jams. With 80 minutes of music over its 10 songs, a couple of which stretch beyond 16 minutes, it's a showcase for Cline as a soloist and ensemble player, immersing in spontaneous music-making with contagious enthusiasm...

Cline, 64, and the Singers recorded "Share the Wealth" during the fall of 2019 in Brooklyn -- and weren't even sure they were making an album at the time. "It was more of a theoretical record at first than a real recording," he says by phone. "Once (co-producer) Eli Crews and I went in and started messing around with the material I had, it was fairly clear we had a double record and more. I was stunned that Blue Note (Records) was up to put it out. I Thought it was going to be a little too extreme, so I was stunned and amazed and, of course, honored when (label president) Don Was gave the green light."

Cline says he set out to make "this kind of compressed -- meaning time-compressed -- psychedelic, prog rock fusion record that was not too long and had a lot of jarring juxtapositions, kaleidoscopic musical events. I had never played a gig with this lineup; I was just trying to see what would happen, to be honest. I didn't have very many specific ideas about what I wanted to do. I just wanted to see where things went and...recorded a lot of improvisations with purpose in mind"

The results, meanwhile, convinced Cline to make another kind of album entirely. "The idea was to take small chunks from (the improvisations) and turn them into somewhat sensible, shorter pieces. Bu when I sat down and listened to what we had recorded, I was really amazed by how the improvisations developed and where they went. There seemed to be this selfless, orchestral chemistry going on that was completely unplanned but was stuff I really liked listening to. That doesn't happen very often, so I decided to showcase that spirit instead and really capture what was happening in the room between the six of us."

Now that the album is out, of course, Cline is anxious to put this version of the singers on stage, though he has to hold off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "That's another reason the results of our session were so compelling to me; If it sounded that good in a studio together, playing live, it can only go further in a true live session. It's a challenge, for sure. Since we're not playing pop music it might be a bit of a stretch. But maybe when people hear the record they'll want us to come play, and hopefully we'll be able to do that before too long."

Wilco is similarly on hold, communicating primarily via Zoom "mostly just to hang out and talk with each other," according to Cline. "I know we'd love to have a new record sometime next year. Obviously we're not going to be able to record together for a little while, but since only two of the guys live in Chicago at this point we haven't spent that much time recording together at the same time, anyway. We'll have to see what kind of record we can make thousands of miles away from each other. I knew Jeff (Tweedy) has plenty of songs; He's very prolific, so that's never a problem."

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