Tomorrow night Wilco plays its only Chicago gig of the year, headlining a sold out Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. As I wrote in last week’s paper, the group’s latest record, Sky Blue Sky (Nonesuch), has been subjected to a broad and surprising backlash because on the surface it sounds much more straight ahead than the group’s last two ballyhooed albums, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel (2002) and A Ghost is Born (2004). But to my ears it’s as strong as anything the group has ever produced. The off-kilter stuff is subtler, but the careful patterns sculpted by drummer Glenn Kotche and the harmonically rich guitar playing of guitarist Nels Cline (Sky Blue Sky is his first studio effort as a member of the band) distinguish the music from what Pitchfork unfortunately called “dad rock.”

Certainly Cline’s playing falls in line with the melodic requirements of pop-rock, and he doesn’t exactly push the sonic envelope outside of those parameters. But as a couple recent records by him make plain, Cline, a longtime forward-looking jazzer, ranks as one of the world’s most creative and forceful guitarists. Downpour (Victo) captures him at his most abstract and ferocious; it’s an all-improvised session with drummer Tom Rainey and keyboardist Andrea Parkins where the focus is on textural abstraction and high-level interplay. (A previous album by the group, Ash and Tabula, was released by Chicago’s Atavistic in 2004.) In particular, Cline’s effects-heavy washes and explosions seem to meld with Parkins’s lines and chordal drones—on accordion, piano, sampler, and synthesizer—to deliver powerful waves of noise, spiky dissonance, and harmonically ambiguous cross-cutting time and time again. It’s loud and aggressive, but never thoughtless or crude. Rainey, a master of spreading beats across the kit and subdividing time like a mathematician, drives the proceedings, but he’s also adding color and prodding his partners with all sorts of splintery runs and jagged bursts.    

Draw Breath (Cryptogramophone), the latest album by his group the Nels Cline Singers—which is, in fact, an instrumental trio—covers more accessible territory, but it’s still plenty adventurous. Joined by bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, Cline presents a variety of compositions, ranging from atmospheric ballads to corrosive, groove-oriented pieces to raucous postbop swingers, and he deftly demonstrates the fluidity of lines and the range of electronically manipulated sounds he can wring from his guitar. But the performances are rooted in ensemble-minded jazz even as they explore the boundaries of rock. The album is a knockout performance by a group that clearly possesses a deeply intuitive sensibility. Heard against his work with Wilco, these efforts only amplify his talent and imagination. For your listening pleasure, here’s an MP3 of one of Draw Breath’s most blistering pieces, “Confection.” You can listen below or click here to download.

Nels Cline Singers, “Confection”

Today’s playlist

Isley Brothers, This Old Heart of Mine/Soul on the Rocks (Motown)
Trifon Trifonov & Stanimaka, Bulgarian Wedding Music From the Last Century (Winter & Winter)
Bhundu Boys, The Shed Sessions (Sadza)
Neil Young, American Stars ‘n’ Bars (Reprise)
DJ Olive, Bodega (the Agriculture)