Sonic Subtleties

Last time around, it was sitting in a circle with a bunch of small amps, playing live, playing off one another, a band coming together in the moment to create something bigger than itself, something as big as its namesake.

The album was "Sky Blue Sky," the sixth disc from rootsy Chicago rockers Wilco, and it was the kind of warm, organic sounding record that children of ’70s rock radio could embrace as one of their own.

But for Wilco’s latest, self-titled disc, due out on June 30, the group took an entirely different route, and guitarist Nels Cline occasionally found himself staring at the road map in confusion.

"The process was so different, by design," Cline says from Chicago on the eve of Wilco’s latest tour. " ‘Sky Blue Sky’ was a very collaborative record in the writing sense and the playing sense. It was pretty much live. Not a lot of overdubbing, not a lot of fixes.

"This record was done exactly the opposite of that for the most part," he continues. "It’s layered. Jeff (Tweedy, singer/guitarist) wanted as many ideas arrangementwise and overdubs as anyone wanted to do. The writing is essentially all Jeff. He had this batch of songs that just seemed like they exploded out of him and there they were."

This was Cline’s second album with Wilco after joining the band five years ago. He’s best known for his improvisational skills, his ability to add texture and nuance to just about any given setting.

Cline’s background is as diffuse as his playing style, as he’s led his own jazz-based troupe, The Nels Cline Trio, locked horns with Sonic Youth noise maven Thurston Moore, jammed with overlooked Americana subverts the Geraldine Fibbers and performed on more than 150 albums during the course of his 30-year career.

But even with his knack for creating something out of nothing, Cline still found it challenging to try and find his place on Wilco’s latest disc.

"I had to figure out what to do," Cline says. "Sometimes the songs sounded finished to me without any of my contributions, so that was a little daunting. It was kind of hard for me at times, only because I was thinking too much. I kind of got in my own way. On a song like ‘You and I,’ I didn’t know what to play. The song is a classic pop song that doesn’t need any of my contributions at all. I’m not hearing anything, it sounded finished."

Still, Cline certainly made his presence felt on the album in the end, as it’s among Wilco’s most musically detailed efforts yet. It’s a good headphones record, alive with a number of sonic subtleties and a mix that pays attention to aural minutiae.

The album swings from the galvanized, self-referential rock ‘n’ roll of opener "Wilco," where the band offers itself up as a "sonic shoulder for you to cry on," to a spare, acoustic longing to wistful, understated pop.

Through it all, Cline adds his touches, some straightforward bottleneck guitar work here ("Sunny Feeling"), a raging maelstrom of feedback and cacophonous tones there ("Bull Black Nova").

Cline might come across as an unorthodox guitarist, but really, his playing is rooted in convention, in a ’60s rock swing and the kind of broad-minded, genre-free outlook that defined many artists of that era.

"A lot of my earliest musical influences as a boy I kind of tap into with some of the work I’m doing with Wilco, because it addresses my early love of rock ‘n’ roll quite often," Cline says. "Besides any of the so-called inventiveness that people think is a big part of what I’m supposed to be doing, I really am doing what I consider to be kind of a classicist approach more than anything else. It’s fun. It’s its own kind of challenge, but it’s also kind of natural for me."

It’s this balance between the earthy and avant garde, the unadorned and the elaborate, that Cline brings to the table in Wilco.

As such, he’s an ideal fit for a band that’s been straddling those extremes for several albums now.

And so it makes sense that Cline’s contributions to it all are just as malleable and wide open as the guitar playing that got him here to begin with.

"My role for myself is pretty vague," Cline admits of his place in Wilco. "I think what I’m there to do is to be a part of the orchestra and serve the songs. Everything else is icing on the cake. I don’t necessarily think anybody thought of my coming into this situation as Mr. Shred.

"I don’t see that as a necessity for quality music making," he says with a pause. "But, if the need arises … ."

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at or 702-383-0476.

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