An update of Fifties “mood music,” those chilled-out instrumental soundtracks for breakfast in bed with mai-tais and late-night booty calls, Lovers is a departure for Wilco guitar swami Nels Cline, whose side projects generally involve free-jazz freakouts. That’s not to say this wordless double-disc set, featuring an all-star orchestra full of sharp improvisers, isn’t wildly inventive in its water-colored way. Like Dylan of late, Cline sculpts a number of American Songbook classics. He embroiders a sweet, string-swaddled “Glad to be Unhappy,” that melancholic standout from both Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours and Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. “Beautiful Love,” a Thirties standard notably covered by jazz guitar hero Joe Pass, is played similarly straight – although Nineties rock geeks will recall the alt-metal lounge-noise version from Helmet’s Betty LP, to which this surely nods.
More formally adventurous is “Lady Gabor,” written by pioneer fusion guitarist Gábor Szabó, which jumps off his 1962 recording with the Chico Hamilton Quintet with Cline’s sci-fi boudoir atmospherics, Zeena Parkins’ harp flourishes and Kenny Wollensen’s tiki-lounge marimba. It’s the sound of romance getting a little weird. By disc two, it’s clear that Cline isn’t shying away from hearts of darkness. “It Only Has to Happen Once” is a samba-tinged noir by Arto Lindsay with some of the album’s more abraded guitar, the melody getting downright cubist by the end. A medley explores film themes to the Stockholm syndrome Nazi S&M drama The Night Porter and Charlotte Rampling’s surrealist chimpanzee romance Max, Mon Amour. Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl” – from the overlooked A Thousand Leaves, maybe the band’s prettiest LP, in terms of guitar work – becomes haunted, richly orchestrated exotica. The original’s lyrics, a love pledge from amidst the ruins written by Thurston Moore, are absent, a reminder that the vagaries of love are often beyond words.