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October 12, 2010

Book Notes - Nels Cline ("Dirty Baby")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Dirty Baby combines the art of Ed Ruscha, the poetry of David Breskin, and the music of Nels Cline. Individually, these are impressive works, but when experienced together their powers magnify and haunt, and truly explore how strong the connections between art, music and poetry can be.

I was so enamored with my promo copy of the Dirty Baby album (which includes the double album of Cline's compositions as well as two booklets of artwork by Ruscha) that I immediately picked up the hardbound book, and was amazed at the intellectual heft Breskin's poetry added to the mix.

Flavorwire wrote of the book:

"Reminiscent of a record album (complete with A and B sides) and packaged with four CDs, Dirty Baby isn't meant to be read as much as it's meant to be experienced: the pictures, music, and words are best when they’re absorbed as one. Ruscha’s haunting images provide a visual counterpoint to Breskin's ghazals — lyric poems with a repeated rhyme, set to music composed and arranged by Wilco guitarist Cline."

Below is an exclusive excerpt of Nels Cline's liner notes for the album, Dirty Baby.

In his own words, here is Nels Cline's Book Notes music playlist for the book, Dirty Baby:

Nels Cline: "In God We Trust" from Dirty Baby
Nels Cline: "You and I Are in Disagreement" from Dirty Baby

I took it as both an honor and a challenge when writer/producer David Breskin commissioned me to write music for Dirty Baby. A visionary recontextualization of the legendary Los Angeles artist Edward Ruscha's "censor strip" works of the '80s and '90s, Dirty Baby would be an art monograph, an array of ghazals, and a collection of music and spoken-word poetry CDs rolled into one. Though I have played quite a bit of music and written some original compositions—even scored a couple of C movies—I'd never previously been asked to compose anything of this scale or seriousness. I was aware of David's previous art/music/poetry project of 2002, the monumental exploration of Gerhard Richter's abstract paintings, Richter 858, featuring sixteen writers and music by Bill Frisell. Ambitious, exhaustive, sensitive, it was MAJOR. I was also familiar with David's earlier writing as a music journalist, as well as his production work on some marvelous recordings of mostly New York musicians, such as Ronald Shannon Jackson, Tim Berne, and Joey Baron. As a native Angeleno skirting the fringes of a few scenes, I've never seen myself as much of a conceptualist or even (capital "C") Composer, but I took on the assignment with dedication, feeling that I could attempt such a daunting task because of my awareness of Ruscha, of L.A., of Breskin, of Frisell. However difficult the task seemed, maybe I could really do it...? It helped greatly that David seemed to have a startling degree of faith in, and admiration for, my abilities as a composer. Weird!

A project like this unavoidably approaches (and yet naturally enough avoids) the very idea of SOUNDTRACK. On Side A, there is a real story being told, what David only half-jokingly calls "a time-lapse history of Western Civilization, American subdivision." The primordial New Land is "discovered" by European interlopers and settlers; they push westward; land and slaves are purchased, fences go up; cities are created, the land altered in extreme; proximity and increased ease of communication beget, ironically, isolation.... And then there is David's bracing poetry (in the book!) as another element, a guide or narrator, to play off of. David did give me clues to what he wanted for the music, but no specific direction save for the initial Side A brief: create one long piece of music, not a collection of discrete songs. The early '70s works of Miles Davis, specifically a piece like the Miles/Joe Zawinul composition "Great Expectations" (with its on-and-off grooving) could be a template of sorts. Bitches Brew, On The Corner: music that had range but was clearly of a piece. Yet it seemed obvious to both of us that there should be a progression from acoustic (the primeval, prehistoric world through Native-American America) to electric (settled and urban/suburban America). I leave it to the listener to take these general reports and descriptions and add their own nuanced interpretations, of course. But my choices of harmonica, pedal steel guitar, and Hammond organ were all intended to reflect a sort of Americana, while the music and choice of musicians could at any moment transcend and/or subvert this notion should it become facile or rigid.

Which brings me to the musicians themselves. Without attempting to profile each glorious one, I want to say that once I was clear on the instrumentation for each "Side" of DIRTY BABY, I decided (and David agreed) that the vast majority of both groups needed to consist of musicians living in Los Angeles, my rather disrespected hometown. This was a joy for me! It meant that many of my favorite musicians on the planet would be front and center. Some I'd worked with for more than thirty years, as with Messrs. Golia, Peet, and Gauthier. And one I'd "worked with" my whole life: my twin brother Alex. The foreigners are only three: Scott Amendola and Devin Hoff (two-thirds of The Nels Cline Singers) and Denver pedal steel wiz Glenn Taylor. I bow deeply in gratitude to these players, for their amazing talent and versatility, their patience and commitment. There is a lot of improvising involved in these pieces, and my implicit trust in, and familiarity with, their formidable skills made it so much easier to envision this music and know that it would be played splendidly. Much had to be accomplished in little time—the entirety was recorded in three consecutive days, in January of 2008—and I am truly indebted to them for making this music come to life.

And as usual, thanks and love to all the ardent listeners, ranters, raconteurs, free-form radio radicals, shy shadow people and egregious exhibitionists, hip priests and priestesses, aliens and asymmetrical ascenders, watchers of the skies and flies from the ashcans of America and beyond.

Nels Cline and Dirty Baby links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website

Book Soup Blog review of the book
Buffalo News review of the album
Cool Hunting review of the book
Flavorwire review of the book
New York Times review of the album
Something Else! review of the album
The Stash Dauber review of the album
Twin Cities Daily Planet review of the book

Artinfo interview with David Breskin about the book
Los Angeles Times review of the world premiere performance
Prefix interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists