Guitarist/composer Nels Cline’s Lovers (Blue Note Records) is both a sharply focused statement and an expansive wide-lens view of the landscape of the human heart. With his core band of Devin Hoff (bass) and twin brother Alex Cline (drums) serving as the heartbeat of a 20-piece chamber orchestra filled with improvisers, the album is an update on the light music and mood records popular in the early days of the LP. The ensemble stitches together standards, film music, and more contemporary pieces with Cline’s own compositions into a delicious, cohesive whole.
After an introduction, the first track, “Diaphanous,” sets the overall mood for the record. The shifting, billowing texture of the strings and reeds feel translucent as Cline’s guitar shines light through them and traces the silhouette with fluid, even strokes. Many sumptuous moments on this set pick up that thread. A pastoral vision of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed” uses Cline’s lap steel like rapidly cooling magma running through a landscape. His vocals stretch the time-tested melody into almost surreal details like a painter using perspective and light that couldn’t exist in the real world to keep the eye engaged. The way Alex Cline’s cymbals find a middle ground between Nels’ leading voice and Kenny Wollensen’s vibes is a masterclass in the coloring qualities of percussion, and the shades of the melody bouncing between clarinets and brass highlights Michael Leonhart’s arranging powers.
Fans of Nels Cline’s crunchier, noisier side, won’t be disappointed here either. His medley of two Annette Peacock compositions, “So Hard It Hurts/Touching,” starts with a flurry of sharp edges and an almost orchestral fanfare of trumpets that flares out into a quiet, echoing throb. Elements are reintroduced piece by piece, playing with space between the notes and ending in an unresolved way that makes the listener come back again and again. Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl,” feels like a close-up on a flame getting brighter and revealing more colors inside. The melody sensuously distorts, twists, and slips back into itself. Latin flavors in the percussion roll through quavering strings that resist being static even as they vibrate around a center. Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor” vacillates between angularity and lushness, strings and flutes bursting through the cracks of some of the most swinging jazz playing from the rhythm section anywhere on the record. Nels tears into that material, his guitar swaggering and pulling back, brass smears led by Steven Bernstein’s trumpet and runs of Zeena Parkins’ harp as dance partners through the steam.
The density and ferocity of the brass section also shine on the Rodgers and Hart classic, “Glad to Be Unhappy.” There’s a guttural, open-wound quality to Nels’ guitar, finding a catharsis by going all the way into that hurt. Strings and vibes give a depth of field to the proceedings as Bernstein’s snarling trumpet laughs at the maudlin nature of the character’s predicament, but also mirthlessly, flowing out of and back into Cline’s guitar. Jimmy Giuffre’s “Cry Want” plumbs a similar loneliness, but atomizes it into a blood spray, crackling cells of guitar sliding over bass and sliced open by cymbals and brushed snare with orchestral accents. Digression doesn’t have to be about being lost, and the group knows perfectly well how to modulate its collective voice and draw the listener in closer and closer. That indirectness is sometimes the best, most confident route. There’s a lot to absorb here, but it’s worth letting Lovers sink into your skin.