(If you don't have the attention span for a long-winded review, skip to the last paragraph.)
Two double-CD releases in one calendar year is enough to raise eyebrows, even when the artist releasing them is guitarist extraordinaire Nels Cline. (His Nels Cline Singers released Initiate earlier this year, and I will forever remember listening to it as I shoveled my car out of all that snow in February.) But before he is considered too prolific for his own good, some explanation is in order. Dirty Baby was created on spec, in a sense. It's a collaboration between Cline and poet/producer David Breskin that creates music to go with paintings by Ed Ruscha, which also appear on a large size book of the same name, published by DelMonico Books - Prestel. The late artist came into prominence in the '80s for his "censor strip" paintings, which feature blacked-out censor lines become part of the artistic statement.
The album has one of the most deluxe packages to ever grace a small disc set. It comes in a CD-size box that includes two booklets with a total of 66 Ruscha images, one set for each CD. A third booklet is attached to the disc container itself, with liner notes from Cline and session photos of each of the 16 musicians. This kind of detail and care usually comes only with releases from Rhino Handmade or Mosaic.
The discs - known as Side A and Side B - are grouped thematically. The first consists of a six part, 42-minute suite which Breskin has referred to as "a time-lapse history of Western Civilization," according to Cline's notes. The accompanying images come from Ruscha's Silhouette series, a set of dark, black-and-white-becoming gray images that run the gamut from out-of-focus barn gates to a swing set with the censor strips in the dead center of the image. The music successfully charts the evolution of the synopsis. It begins with a looped acoustic guitar that is joined by harmonica and bass playing a melody that evokes the American heartland. It evolves, adding some great organ flourishes (from Wayne Peet) before some string scrapes show up and things take a turn for the ugly.
After some excellent rural blues from the leader, things get a little convoluted. Cline fires up his loopy Quintronics Drum Buddy (a primitive device that works like a modern drum machine) for some wah wah guitar and '80s style one-note (think Wall-era David Gilmour) which should be a great time, but instruments like the bass come and go without really kicking into something.
The final 12-minute section deftly scores the apocalyptic feelings that are scorching the country, like a post-modern version of Carl Stalling's "Powerhouse." Over his brother Alex's unrelentless "When the Levee Breaks" beat, Cline proves why he is such a guitar hero, as he does his own scorching. The only problem - and it's a big one - is the annoying slowed-down voice that groans every four beats. I understand the context, but it takes away from something really powerful. But it drops out for the last quarter of the piece, leaving a ukulele and banjo noodling away, which comes as something of a reward for sitting through the proceedings.
After the breadth of Side A, Side B caters to the ADD listeners: 33 songs in 51 minutes, one piece for each image in the accompanying booklet of Ruska's Cityscapes. (The title is a misnomer, as each image is more less a series of colors, or one color, with censor strips across it.) If the brevity evokes memories of John Zorn's Naked City, the titles also recall the more violent imagery that band appropriated from various sources. All the titles read like lines from a mob film, like "Do As I Say Or..." to "I Will Wipe You Off the Face of This Earth."
Sometimes all that's missing from the arrangement is the one high, bleating alto shriek that Zorn threw in all of his noisy solos. But as a whole, Cline displays a great deal of breadth with these pieces, never once repeating an idea or reshaping it. He touches on jazz, blues, modern classical, death metal and his own version of Carl Stalling (or maybe that's the Morton Feldman reference he mentions). He even based a few on the rhythmic emphasis of their titles, like "Don't Threaten Me With Your Threats."
Lasting anywhere from 28 seconds to a rare 3:34, nearly all the pieces stand as individual works, rather than movements of a bigger piece. Special mention must be made of "Agree to Our Terms Or Prepare Yourself For a Blast Furnace." In 55 seconds, a xylophone clunk and alarm bell segue into a sonic interpretation of said furnace, all performed completely live.
Dirty Baby features an all-star cast including but not limited to reed master Vinny Golia, Cline Singers Scott Amendola (drums) and Devin Hoff (bass), and Jon Brion (keyboards). This album is also a mandatory purchase. Looking at it from the Big Picture, Cryptogramophone head Jeff Gauthier (who plays violin on Side B) should be given positive reinforcement for releasing such a beautiful artifact at a time when so many knuckleheads say the music industry is belly up. He cares, so you should too.
Buy this set, and put it in a prominent place in your house, where you'll see it everyday. That will motivate you to take it down, put the music on, read Cline's thoughts (which sometimes get a little too self-deprecating, but modesty is a good thing), perhaps look at the images while listening to their corresponding tunes and really get into this music on a deeper level.