Not long ago, avant-garde music was supported mostly by academia and arts endowments. Now rock & roll has gotten into the act too. When Jeff Tweedy signed up Nels Cline to be Wilco's lead guitarist, Cline had been making balls-out, free-form jazz records. Happily, he still is, as vigorously as ever. The two-disc DIRTY BABY, his collaboration with polymath poet-producer David Breskin, is Cline's most far-reaching work yet.
The music was conceived to accompany 66 paintings, reproduced in the CD booklet, by L.A. pop-art vet Ed Ruscha (an expanded book version adds writings by Breskin). Disc One soundtracks the fuzzy, enigmatic Silhouette series with a single 42-minute piece, moving from woodsy acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica sketches into murky urban jazz funk that recalls Miles Davis' Seventies jams, while moonlighting producer Jon Brion adds crazy synth colors. Disc Two consists of 33 pieces, most between one and two minutes: Call it Twitter jazz. Playing off Ruscha's "Cityscapes" — paintings that conjure the censor strips used by governments to obscure "confidential" documents — Cline's music fittingly yokes together spy-movie themes, horn shrieks, black-and-blue string arrangements, hardcore punk blasts and, at one point, the sound of raindrops hammering on a skylight. Overall, it's less about abstract guitar heroics than his usual projects. But hearing Cline get freaky with such a wide palette and such a sharp ensemble (including twin brother Alex on drums) is a new shade of thrill.
Guitarist Marc Ribot helped Tom Waits refine a new, weird Americana on 1985's Rain Dogs, and since then he's become the go-to guitar guy for all kinds of roots-music adventurers: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp. On his own records, Ribot has explored everything from the pioneering jazz of Albert Ayler to the Cuban son of Arsenio Rodríguez. On Silent Movies, recorded for what's become the most compelling label in new jazz (see recent releases by Henry Threadgill and Rudresh Mahanthappa), Ribot lays out solo-guitar scores for films literal and imagined. (He snorts some trademark fire on "Natalia in E Flat Major.") But mainly he indulges the yearning melodic sensibility that hides hooks in even his noisiest recordings, and increasingly defines his playing. The record is most striking for its gentleness: "Sous le Ciel de Paris" is a deeply romantic reading of the Edith Piaf standard, while "The Kid" unspools a playful melancholy. The latter, written to accompany a screening of the Charlie Chaplin film of the same name, is an object lesson in modern Ribot: emotive, graceful, but with a glint of mischief in his method — not unlike the Little Tramp.