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Album review: Nels Cline's 'Coward'

February 9, 2009 |  3:39 pm

Nels Nels Cline has been sounding like multiple guitarists in concert for so many years that giving him a solo album with studio overdubs is almost unfair.

Yet the local favorite who rose from the improvised and experimental music incubators of the Smell and the now-shuttered Rocco to the amphitheater circuit with Wilco did not take this break from his day job to embark on another cathartic trip through a free-jazz electrical storm. In a bit of a surprise, much of "Coward" offers little of the fire-breathing noise workouts from Cline's past and instead plays like an elegantly crafted valentine to the acoustic guitar. At over 18 minutes, the album's swirling centerpiece, "Rod Poole's Gradual Ascent to Heaven" (inspired by the slain L.A. guitarist), casts a hypnotic spell while recalling the raga excursions of Robbie Basho, and "The Nomad's Home" flirts with the warm back-porch slide-work of Leo Kottke.

But Cline hasn't left all of his plugged-in tricks behind. The aptly named "Thurston County" mixes a Sonic Youth-ian churn with squiggling electronics and a weepy pedal steel. Elsewhere Cline's taste for stylistic mash-ups reaches its peak with the six-part "Onan Suite," where the shape-shifting guitarist seamlessly moves from the hallucinatory atmospherics of "Amniotica" to the guttural fuzz-funk of "Seedcaster" to the twitchy indie-rock drive of "The Liberator" with a host of unclassifiable detours in between. Challenging yet often beautiful, music fans who may have been intimidated by Cline's usual outside-leaning tendencies have nothing to fear here.

--Chris Barton

Nels Cline
"Coward"
Cryptogramaphone
Three and a half stars

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