[19 February 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
There really hasn’t been a deal-breaker like this in a long, long time. The Bad Plus, as bad-ass a drum/bass/piano jazz trio as there ever was, have done the unthinkable.
Though they came into prominence in 2003 with the breakout album These Are the Vistas and its respective “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover, the Plus have since reinvented their sound many times over, mixing eclectic original songs with wild-eyed pop covers, often choosing well-known songs from the likes of Rush, Vangelis, the Police, Tears for Fears, and Black Sabbath ... and then turning each song completely on its head in an avant-jazz context. Though jazz purists may cry foul, the simple truth is that the Bad Plus are one of the most exciting and exhilarating contemporary acts out there on the circuit today, slowly working their way into the indie-rock niche with their unique covers and then letting their daring originals do the rest.
So, why, pray tell, did they feel the need to add a vocalist?
For All I Care is the sixth studio effort from pianist Ethan Iverson, drummer Dave King, and bassist Reid Anderson. This time around, they’ve enlisted the help of alt-rock singer Wendy Lewis, an old friend of King. Her voice is meaty but not overbearing, direct yet controlled. It’s a nice fit for a group that will (for better or worse) forever bear the “alternative jazz” moniker wherever they go. Yet the presence of Lewis isn’t the only thing that makes For All I Care different. This time around, the Plus have recorded an album filled with covers and nothing but. There’s not a single original song to be found. In picking songs to reinterpret, the band resorts to old safety nets (Nirvana gets mined again, this time with “Lithium”), logical next steps (Wilco’s “Radio Cure”), huge pop favorites (Heart’s “Barracuda”), and even a surprise indie-gem (the Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”). By all means, the pieces appear to be in place this time out, but something is sorely lacking.
The reason why For All I Care simply doesn’t work is simple. There’s a vocalist where there wasn’t one before. There’s nothing wrong with Lewis’ singing on a surface level. It’s her mere presence that destroys what made the Plus so special. Before, when it was just the trio by themselves, it was often ivory-tickler Iverson who would have to translate any given song’s vocal melody lines to his piano. Instead of hearing the words “ev-ry bo-dy wants to rule the world” on the Tears for Fears cover that proved to one of the highlights of 2007’s Prog (arguably their best album to date), you heard it interpreted—and slightly skewed—by Inverson’s piano, each repetition of the chorus becoming just a bit more abstract than the last go-round. (It’s a technique that they use quite often. To hear its effect in full, track down their cover of “Every Breath You Take”, from one of their early digital EPs.) By adding a vocalist, the Plus can no longer be as loose with their interpretations, making For All I Care a frightfully straightforward affair for a band that doesn’t do well with conventional methodology.
Yet the problem is that the Bad Plus don’t want you to think that anything’s changed. Opening track “Lithium” tires to be deliberately abstract by changing the tempo for the verses mid-flow for no apparent reason—a move that’s more disorienting than aesthetically pleasing. A cover of Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround”, a song that couldn’t be more fitting for the Plus’ interpretive powers, couldn’t sound more neutered if it tried. The short, four-minute running time and painfully bland bass sections squander away any chances of the Plus capitalizing on Joe Anderson’s delightful melodic masterpiece. Even the (totally) unofficial Sarah Palin anthem “Barracuda” sounds anemic in the Plus’ hands, as Lewis’ voice hits all the right notes but never once conveys the emotion needed to drive the point home.
Only once does Lewis actually do the band a favor: on the remarkable reinterpretation of the Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate”. Not only does Lewis sound totally comfortable in this mid-tempo context, the Plus finally manage to shake off their own shackles and unleash their true selves. Iverson and Anderson practically duel during the final minute, making for some exciting, fun listening. The only number that comes even remotely close to matching the Lips’ cover in terms of sheer quality is the Plus’ sparse and understated rendition of Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock and Teardrops” (as sung by k.d. lang), turning an already-great song into a sultry little ballad that’s rife with drama. The key to its success? The Plus never overplay their hand.
Which is more than can be said for their covers of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love”, wherein Lewis absolutely oversells the chorus, or Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, which retains Roger Waters’ epic sense of isolation but absolutely none of the original’s tension. In essence, the presence of Lewis reduces the Bad Plus to mere backing-band status, which is something that they never, ever should be subjugated too, because, as For All I Care shows, such a suit is very ill-fitting for the trio. For All I Care is credited simply to “The Bad Plus Joined by Wendy Lewis”, implying that this collaboration is a one-time thing, which, really, is the best-case scenario we could hope for. In the end, For All I Care isn’t a bad album. It’s just a very unremarkable effort from a band that we’ve grown to expect so much more from.