Nels Cline’s liner notes to Dirty Baby do such a good job of providing context that I’m fighting temptation to basically retype them. But here’s the short of it: poet/arts philanthropist David Breskin appointed guitar madman Cline to compose music accompanying a series of works by Los Angeles artist Ed Ruscha. Cryptogramophone thrusts the whole package at you in a study cardboard box with two booklets containing 66 images as well as photos of the recording session. If there is one thing you ought to take away from this review, it is this; if you thought that Nels Cline, the Albert Ayler of the guitar, was already pretty diverse and talented, he just took it to the next level without even asking you. The line between Cline’s talents for composing and the inspiration from Ruscha’s painting gets a little fuzzy, and that’s just one of the things that makes Dirty Baby a true work of art.
The music is divided into two CDs, each side corresponding to a different series of works by Ed Ruscha. Side A’s visual influence is the Silhouette paintings; muted shapes of recognizable objects so vivid, they could pass for impressionistic photographs. Side B has the Cityscapes to work with, looking like an exercise meant to mock “censor” blocks over inappropriate images and words. Understandably, the two sides have very different identities. The first disc has six untitled tracks that flow in and out of structure, placing mood and composition on equal tiers. By itself, the music can veer from crazy to beautiful while hitting all points in between. If listened to while perusing the Ruscha paintings, it can be a downright breathtaking match. Even if they don’t follow a strict sequence, per se. The second disc is a 33-track whiplash. Working within the framework of having short pieces representing stark images, most “songs” hover around the one-minute mark while sharing the painting’s aggressive titles: “Little Snitches Like You End Up in Dumpsters All Across Town”, “I’ll Be Getting Out Soon and I Haven’t Forgot Your Testimony Put Me in Here”, “You Talk You Get Killed”, you get the idea. The soundtrack to Cityscapes should not sound all that shocking to someone who has ever had a steady listening diet of John Zorn’s Naked City.
Nels Cline’s selection of musicians is also something to behold. The usual suspects from his band the Nels Cline Singers, Scott Amendola and Devon Hoff, are both present as well as Cline’s twin brother Alex. But Dirty Baby becomes something more distinct in Cline’s catalog thanks to contributions from keyboardist Jon Brion, saxophonist/flautist Vinny Golia, trumpeter Dan Clucas and violinist/label boss Jeff Gauthier, just to name a few. All told, 15 musicians were able to record over 90 minutes of music in just three days. Holy cow.
There is a danger, when mixing media, of having one form of expression overshadow another. Or sometimes you have problems enjoying one aspect of the work when you don’t have the other pieces of the puzzle there. But Dirty Baby would still be compelling to a blind man. Sure, the paintings are powerful and speak volumes unto themselves, but the same can be said for Cline’s music. It has the ability to erase past Cline endeavors from your memory. Not because previous recordings weren’t excellent, but because the eclecticism of Dirty Baby makes for such a strong listening experience. You will be more fascinated than bewildered (though I can’t rule the latter word out for some listeners).
Nels Cline just kicked two double albums into our faces this year. And depending on your listening habits, they may be the two best things you get to hear all year.