The oddity of the situation attracts immediately. For the last four decades Nels Cline has well-earned his rep as an experimentalist, partial to dissonance and expert at abstraction. One of our most respected guitarists, he often finds ways to use both, be it overtly, in rambunctious situations with the most intrepid improvisers of his generation, or, during the last 12 years with Wilco, in more nuanced ways. There he’s helped shape some very clever pop, spackling the cracks and crevices of Jeff Tweedy’s tunes with eloquent, occasionally askew, filigree. So when he began work on a flotilla of romantic songs from across the 20th century with the goal of sculpting an album that would hark to the “bachelor pad” records of the ‘50s, intrigued by melody and italicizing mood, ears perked up.
They can stay perked. Lovers is a pivot disc, a move by a cagey outlier that will certainly tickle Cline’s fans while likely wooing those unfamiliar with his work. An extended opus built on a large ensemble’s swoop and lilt, it moves through 18 vivid instrumentals that link comfortably into a suite of sorts. Some stress sentiment, others wax spectral, several are sage in their ability to ease a vintage cocktail-music mentality into a modernist setting that manages to drift from a Sonic Youth valentine to a ditty from “The King and I” to a “Why Was I Born” that swings with such antique grace it seems lifted from a Woody Allen film. Along the way, routine aspects of the originals pick up an edge. Even when he’s waxing genteel, his spin on torch songs and soundtrack interludes trades mush for mystery – advanced cosmopolitanism, 2016 style.
As the music seeps forward, it becomes clear that Lovers is more of an orchestrator’s album than it is a guitarist’s disc. Cline sits up front and glides through several tender solos, but he’s wise enough to share his vision with arranger-conductor Michael Leonhart, whose charts seem built on a series of questions: Is it possible to conflate Esquivel and Eddie Sauter? Are there flickers of light in Elmer Bernstein’s eeriest moments? What would happen if Martin Denny’s “quiet village” had an ominous side?
A wealth of improv-savvy musicians articulate these settings. Clarinetist Ben Goldberg, percussionist Kenny Wollesen, brass man Steven Bernstein, and harpist Zeena Parkins are among the ensemble members, filling Leonhart’s umbral designs with all kinds memorable particulars. A heartbreaking oboe motif pops up and fades away; a marimba sets a pulse and fosters a fleeting exotica. A tenor sax acts willowy for a sec as the group hovers behind it. In Leonhart’s hands Ambitious Lovers “It Only Has to Happen Once” cops a vibe from “The Edge of Night” theme and Annette Peacock’s “Touching” incorporates a spooky drone. Marshalling his charges in unsettling directions, the conductor has a way of keeping the music sparse but sumptuous, and producer David Breskin definitely assists his reed, brass and string squads when it comes to waxing luminous.
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Lovers does its business in the shadows, an album that takes on more resonance at dusk. The handful of originals that he brings to the program sustains this vibe. “The Bed We Made” is jazzy but bittersweet. “You Noticed” gauzy and forlorn. “Hairpin & Hatbox” is heart-on-sleeve, but private enough to do it’s sobbing alone. Whether he’s plucking the strings in a fluid escapade or volume-pedaling his way down a bleak alleyway, Cline is always interacting with Leonhart’s delicate designs, a la Stan Getz and orchestra on Focus. At a few points the music conjures thoughts of the Beach Boys’ “Let’s Go Away For Awhile” – if Brian Wilson’s had held Nino Rota in higher esteem than Phil Spector.
Don’t let that “orchestrator’s disc” comment above fool you into thinking that the guitarist goes without any shimmer time here. His start to Jimmy Giuffre’s “Cry, Want” is a fervent hush of phrases, and the wonderfully balanced stroll he takes on “Secret Love” is the kind of subdued outing that his hero Jim Hall would appreciate. The liquid notes he delivers on “Max, Mon Amour” are some of the album’s most seductive. Cline is supple and supportive throughout, feeding on the Leonhart’s textural gambits and the group’s sensitive rendering of same. Lovers works a less-is-more tack; from lap steel to Fender Jazzmaster, Cline is part of the broader action, stepping out only to enhance the atmosphere. Like Miles on Sketches of Spain, he uses poignancy and lyricism to make the orchestra’s work glow.
If Lovers is meant to have a cinematic effect, “The Bond” is the kind of closing credits theme that offers a lit path out of some very dark woods. There are echoes of Pat Metheny in the way it lays tenderness on the table, but only a dullard would dismiss the power of its candor, or mistake the beat of its heart. (Cline dedicates it to his wife, Yuka Honda, also part of the ensemble.) In LP form, each of Lovers’ four sides has its own emotional arc, and this final-quarter denouement is ravishing, incorporating an obscure Mancini passage fraught with anxiety, and finalizing with an overt tone of optimism. Who knew that revealing the underbelly of romance could be such a radiant experience?