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Draw Breath by Nels Cline Singers The

He's in Rolling Stone, you saw him on Letterman, you hear him in a Volkswagen ad... thanks to his work with Wilco, Nels Cline is everywhere. It's a far cry from the tiny gigs and house parties where he earned his avant garde stripes. Cline still finds time to write and record with longtime band mates The Nels Cline Singers and, through Draw Breath is the eclectic and eccentric recording Cline's fans expect, the results are mixed.

Fans of the experimental and guitar freaks alike should enjoy Draw Breath. The Nels Cline Singers are an accomplished band and most of the album's peak moments have Cline's blistering fretwork as lynchpin. There are very few living guitarists who, like Cline, have seemingly torn down all barriers between the brain and the fingers. Narrow it to guitarists who tour and record as prolifically as Cline and the list gets shorter.

Draw Breath's best moments are when the band rocks with precision and bravado, two elements almost entirely absent from modern rock. The let-downs are when they noodle with dissonant jazz or tired noise experiments. "Attempted" is rife with improvisation but lacks direction. The Singers take some time for disjointed wandering without exploring much terrain during the 16 minute "An Evening At Pops'." "Mixed Message" fills 14 minutes, mostly Cline's arpeggiated acrobatics and lightning-fast fretboard runs. But unlike "An Evening At Pops'," "Mixed Message" rewards patient ears with one of the album's most exciting instrumentals, complete with heavy feedback on Cline's electric.

Written around an electric guitar hook, "Confection" starts at full blast but quickly hushes for a tense bridge with chords picked over cymbal rolls. In the midst of the chaos, Devin Hoff takes out the bow for a delicate solo on his upright bass that switches between the beautiful and the unsettling. When it all gives way, Cline ignites the track with an incendiary solo.

Draw Breath's formula is clear from the start. The Singers aren't afraid to make you wait for the climax. "Caved-In Heart Blues" builds around booms of drumming, a tribal affair like cannibals preparing for the sacrifice. After four and a half minutes of open chording on an acoustic, Cline's overdubbed electric adds wailing bursts of feedback devoid of melody, increasing the piece's unnerving perfection.

The half hour of Draw Breath dedicated to general tension gets some context in the release provided by three placid acoustic pieces. "The Angel of Angels" that follows "An Evening At Pops'" and the two pieces titled "Recognize" that bookend "Mixed Message" are lush interludes. On an album of chaos and electricity, "The Angel of Angels" can feel sleepy and repetitive. It's neither, but it's tough to pick apart the subtleties on Draw Breath. "The Squirrel Of God," Draw Breath's send off, provides more aural clues that this is the big release. Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche guests on "The Squirrel Of God" and adds a wonderful melodic layer with his glockenspiel and crotales. After a few listens, "The Squirrel of God" becomes a very memorable track and is Draw Breath's most melodic piece, if not the most engaging as well.

For all the reasons that make this a must-have for guitarists and fans of the eclectic and experimental, most fans of contemporary jazz will want to steer completely clear of this release.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Nels Cline Singers The
  • CD Title: Draw Breath
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Record Label: Cryptogramophone
  • Rating: Three Stars
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