CUP’s Hydra-Headed Spinning Creature

on Northern Spy
Reviewed by John Payne

Wherein the husband and wife team up to rinse and shine the aural punchbowl, no squabbling. Nels Cline & Yuka Honda are Cup, co-cookers of rich, musically nutritious stuff packed with savory, skewed nuance that reflects their artistic differences and affinities. Guitar visionary Cline’s scope, skills and, yes, taste, is “ax god.” Renowned, his fiercely inventive rock/jazz/other playing with Wilco having boosted his fame-o-meter quite a bit, along with numerous collaborations with the multifarious likes of Medeski Martin & Wood, Deerhoof, Charlie Haden, Julius Hemphill and Mike Watt, along with his own all-instrumental Nels Cline Singers. Keyboardist/electronicist/producer Honda of the late avant-pop duo Cibo Matto has played a vital role in Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon’s bands and is a crucial presence on the downtown NYC new-thing/non-genre/performance-art scene.

Not quite warm ’n’ fuzzy, the hydra-headed Spinning Creature is however the perfect and pretty rare example of fun music that can be, you know, taken seriously. It’s an interface of sympathetic souls and their friendly electronic buddies, pushing and goading themselves as if on a hike across Venus and all three entities discover that indeed their differences matter only in a very superficial sense. The album’s opening “Every Moment,” the sonic equivalent of a Zen garden, is a typically (for them) untypical piece; we’re floating over it, being here now, and we’re perhaps a bit startled to hear string monster Cline singing: “Every moment,” he intones, as Honda’s majestic descending synths unison-harmonize with Cline’s serpentine guitar, which filigrees with whooping curlicues and approximately three tons of digital delay. There are no “beats” as such, no percussion, none needed for this cleansing spiritual ambience.

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Yuka Honda and Nels Cline

“Berries” follows with angular guitar lines and spiky chords counterpointing over a looped vocal of “berries, berries, berries” impishly bespoke by Nels and Yuka. There is a ’70s Canterbury-scene effect with these types of Messiaen-/Webern-/Schoenberg-ish electric chord clusterings, such as guitarist Phil Miller might have drawn upon alongside fuzz-organist Dave Stewart in Hatfield and the North or in Stewart’s earlier Egg combo. The spiky vocal/guitar chord unison is drizzled lightly with Yuka’s spiraling and/or oblique sandpaper synths and sundry eggbeater electronics as Nels’ guitar effects-splatters over patty-pat electronic beats and quasi-jazz-rock-funky sequenced bass lines. It evolves into a peppy and colorful thing with a wonderfully cartoony effect; we observe curious objects whizzing by as we gaze out the wide port window into infinite sonic space.

The duo’s building process chiefly consists of improvising together or alone to generate blobs of musical clay with which to work, mashing and cutting the blobs into a shape of some sort, perhaps then enhancing the whole with overlays and further mixing. This process allows for something decidedly more important than new sounds, textures or digital technologies: New shapes to be presented / argued for as song forms or extended compositions. Spinning Creature’s pieces start in one place, move to others and usually end up in musically unrelated places, an indication of the formal sophistication of this entire ostensibly pop project. As in the lovely title track and elsewhere, Cline and Honda develop seemingly mozaical structures that twist and turn up alleyways and ‘round corners. Cline’s guitar thinking can be Zawinul-esque, a meandering approach to developing melodic lines, as if revealing possible alternate routes along the way; dropping in melody/theme between longish hovering spaces further stimulates a little thought about alternative structural symmetries. You can also hear some of that in the sheer beauty of “As Close As That,” a beguiling, nocturnal scene whose gentle guitar arpeggiations melt into surprising Cline shifts and turns around melodic lines; Honda’s keys are bell-like, a tender lacing. An FX-box wonderama embedding guitars, synths and intricate editing/mixing, “Tokyo Night Janitor” conjures towering electronic Blade Runner-isms before falling into a distorted sequence of barbed-wire abrasions that chug away into the aether.

“Swallows nest in an open book”: This album features one of the most interesting pieces of music I’ve ever heard — interesting harmonically, structurally and emotionally. “Don’t Move” is an oblique cautionary tale, maybe, at any rate an even spookier Alice in Wonderland wherein Cline observes “The romance of the fork and spoon.” Honda: “I’ve seen it.” “Flying fish across the moon.” “I’ve seen it.” “An orange given to an open plum.” “I’ve seen it.” A shady, scary atmosphere mutates into wickedly clomping beats, tuff guitar splinter sprays; then it’s back into that somehow evil chorus as a badass marching anthem of sorts, warning obscurely of danger, and ending abruptly, chopped off, beheaded.

Honda-Cline have developed a fascinating, super-resonant harmonic language in the parallel-planet pop of Spinning Creature, whether via the actual chords and chord progressions or the complex tonal-textural interplay of the guitar, electronics and voices. For the most part they’ve achieved this virtually otherworldly sound without falling back on your more obvious beats, beats, beats, beats, though the downright bubbly “Soon Will Be Flood” supplies a mid-tempo techno foundational cloud — upon which Honda and Cline bounce like sprights, as if melding together their hearts and brains.

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