A few weeks ago I had a brief if pleasant conversation with the novelist Steve Erickson where we marveled at the recent spate of superlative film soundtracks: Jonny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, Daft Punk’s for Tron Legacy, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ for The Social Network, The Roots' for Night Catches Us. I found myself throwing Nels Cline’s score for David Breskin and Ed Ruscha’s DIRTY BABY project into the mix even though the music does not accompany moving images but static ones. And with poetry to boot! Yet growing up in the shadow of Hollywood must have somehow seeped into Cline’s radar: this is perhaps his most cinematic piece of music and indicative of a sweeping and vision he’s only been hinting at. But now it’s official: Nels Cline wants to be a great American composer.
Even in his liner notes to the beautifully packaged objet d’art 2-CD box set, Cline makes references to modern musical cranks like Morton Feldman, Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives. Yet he declares in his lengthy liner notes that "a project like this unavoidably approaches (and yet naturally enough avoids) the very idea of SOUNDTRACK” – partly because some of the music has been improvised (yet so seamlessly incorporated into the composed bits that I defy you to notice where one ends and the other begins) and partly because of Cline’s embracing of the pastiche techniques used by John Zorn (Naked City) and Frank Zappa (Uncle Meat). Where the majority of songs on Cline’s albums with his regular group the Nels Cline Singers (bassist Devin Hoff and Scott Amendola form the spine of the 15-member DB orchestra) jump from one single genre to the other – something that Cline himself has admitted in interviews has become somewhat predictable – Cline does a more successful “mash up” of myriad influences. Punk, avant-garde jazz, film noir, doom metal, Middle Eastern drone, country-western, electronica, groove – all are mixed together more organically. Similar to other soundtrack composers like Michael Danna (The Sweet Hereafter) and Brian Keane (The Way West), Cline draws parallels between conflicting forms and comes up – despite the America-centric settings of Ruscha’s images and Breskin’s poetry – with a result that evokes a sort of borderless global iPOD.
Enter David Breskin, a renaissance mensch whom Cline knew for his music journalism and production credits with ex-Cecil Taylor sideman Ronald Shannon Jackson, gutarist Bill Frisell and the aforementioned Mr. Zorn. In 2002, Breskin had produced RICHTER88, an art/poetry/musical hybrid featuring the abstract art of Gerhard Richter and the music of Mr. Frisell. This caught the eye of Mr. Ruscha, who invited Breskin to tackle some of his lesser-known paintings from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Breskin selected 33 prints each from two different series – The Silhouettes (murky chiaroscuro images of Western expansion: tilted merchant ships, baying wolves, road signs, spiny cacti) and Cityscapes (abstract bars and strips). Although Ruscha is mainly known for his word-based paintings of American roadside signage, Breskin chose to go nonverbal: both sets of paintings are referred to as the “dumb blocks” (Ruscha’s term) or “censor strips” (everyone else’s). Breskin also chose to include his own poetry in the concise and airtight form of Arabic ghazals. Breskin then approached L.A. super-producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to soundtrack guy for Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love) but Brion begged off after pleading unfamiliarity with Ruscha’s work. Cline seemed the next natural leap: he and Brion had been collaborating for years, including charmingly esoteric jam sessions at L.A.’s Largo club. “David did give me clues to what he wanted for the music,” Cline admits in his liner notes, “but no specific direction save for the initial Side A brief: create one long piece of music, not a collection of discrete songs.”
SIDE A, "NELSAANISQATSI": Breskin’s task was a little more specific: he wanted Cline to score no less than “a sort of shaggy-dog time-lapse history” of Western expansion: “The primordial New Land is “discovered” by European interlopers and settlers; they push westward; land and slaves are purchased, fences go up; cities are created, the land is altered in extreme; proximity and increased ease of communication beget, ironically, isolation.” Quite a chunk to bite off – that’s about 6,000 years, folks! – yet its remarkable how Cline calls on his music-nerd encyclopedia of a brain and yet makes music that sounds so eerily original. Side A begins with deceptive simplicity: back and forth acoustic strumming by Cline and acolyte Jeremy Drake, soon joined by Bill Barrett’s shape-shifting chromatic harmonica and Devin Hoff’s searching bass, calling up images of bubbling tidepools and oozing magma. Barrett’s harmonica mixes with Glenn Taylor’s understated pedal steel guitar before Wayne Peet’s atmospheric Hammond organ flickers over a plodding horse-hoof pulse. (The same BPM is maintained throughout the 42 minute cut). It’s an epic yet modern cowboy opera—music both familiar and otherworldly.
Cline’s adherence to his improvised-music roots yields some fascinating direction for his musicians: at one point, Cline cues them to improvise using only the chord-structure used by Nashville session players.* By the fourth mini-suite, guest Jon Brion (whom Cline managed to get to sit in) weighs in with a vintage EMI Synth, creating circular squiggles on which one can almost see the time lapse growth of the digital city like a metastasizing computer chip, eating up the desert as it expands. Despite Cline’s claim in his liner notes that “I pretty much messed up any literal timeline,” this could be the story of Los Angeles, our progression to “the end of the line.” Any doubt of this is smershed by the closing track: A terrifying primeval march/dirge, where Hoff’s bass growls and stomps like some slag-created monster oozing out of a cadmium-polluted urban nightscape – all doom, all the time. It’s a scary experience on headphones, summoning up dinosaurs and Maseratis alike drowning in the La Brea Tar Pits, both making distress calls in their own language. This is some of Cline’s most upsetting music – that is, until a banjo and a mini-guitar begin to rise in the background, stilling the ugliness and making it go to sleep with a choker hold.
*From Nels: "In Nashville songs are easily played/learned/recorded/arranged by just naming the chords as they appear in the diatonic scale - I - vii. So in C I is C, IV is F, vi is A minor, etc. Sometimes onstage playing little-known material a musical director will use numbers of fingers, sometimes charts are just these numbers."
SIDE B, "MISSION ACCOMPLISHIFIED": Breskin’s idea for DB's second half was, as he told an interviewer, “a kind of shooting gallery in which to set the Iraq conflict — back to the 'cradle' of that civilization, the nearly-destroyed nursery.” His direction for Cline was a bit more constrictive: 33 pieces, each no longer than a minute-plus. Cline came up with, in his words, “more than a string of amuse-bouche”: a sound-byte rendering of America’s wars in the Middle East. And it’s amazing how many far-reaching sounds and influences Cline throws into the mix and mashes together with great care. Track 6 (“DO AS TOLD OR SUFFER”) could be a race-car engine, or someone imitating a race-car engine by spitting though tightened lips, or even one long cartoonish flatulence. On Track 9 (“HEY YOU WANT TO SLEEP WITH THE FISHES?”), a bebop bass line is supported by a woozy, art-damaged surf guitar reverb. Some tracks punch you in the face before signing off abruptly. The Cagean Track 10 (“A COLUMBIA NECKLACE FOR YOU”) is more silence than sound. Track 11 (“NOTE WE HAVE ALREADY GOT RID OF SEVERAL LIKE YOU”) is of a lyrical piece with the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaborations of the late ‘50s. Track 15 (“I’M GOING TO LEAVE MORE NOTES AND I’M GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS”) is chugging metal mixed with a free-jazz horn freakout. Even in these small pieces, Cline approaches the anthemic spheres of great FILM composers like Jerry Goldsmith and Ennio Morricone. Even he is forced to conclude in his liner notes: “Maybe it IS a soundtrack after all…” Ah Nels. Long may you waiver!
*UPDATE (11/24/10): Listen to NPR reporter Andrea Raymond's profile of the DIRTY BABY project.