[4 August 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You’re not going to find many albums out there like Red Hot + Bach. I’ll try to avoid speaking in absolutes, but this installment into the Red Hot AIDS benefit catalog is pretty much a one-of-a-kind. It may be a 19 track, 75-minute homage to a Baroque composer, but it is not what you would call a classical album. The roster is huge, as would be expected, but the collective resumes of all involved reads like an indie rash—i.e. musicians afraid to be trapped in the pop sphere and want to be taken more seriously. Red Hot + Bach is, in turns, classical, drone, ambient, pointillist, Latin, electronic and an especially confusing brand of pop. And if it’s true that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then this album has to buckle down for a few repairs if it wants to hold itself together.
One one thing that Red Hot + Bach touts is an app that allows the listener to screw around with the music or create videos to go with what they are hearing. The music itself can be very close to the Johann Sebastian of old, like the first track (“Minuet” performed by multi-instrumentalist Rob Moose and mandolin player Chris Thile). At other times, it doesn’t sound like anything closely associated with Bach, like the verses of the final track (“Dear Goldberg” by Gabriel Kahane). The quality can waver a bit, as is expected, but the good moments outnumber the iffy ones. If only the iffy ones weren’t the ones that left the longest lasting impression, then Red Hot + Bach could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Red Hot + Cool in terms of successful musical crossovers.
Dustin O’Halloran has a nice spooky noir card up his sleeve for “Minim”, a little piece of chamber music that grows more tense in the hands of the pianist/composer. Ron Carter and Gary Batz’s take on the iconic “Cello Suite No. 1” is odd since, in the midst of overdubbing, these two jazz legends exercise rubato. One thing that it does manage to do, thanks to Batz’s multi-tracked sax, is establish a euphoric mood. King Britt’s “Ave Maria” achieves a similar result with enough burbling synths and plastic beats to make Bach, his two wives and 20 children to spin in their graves. But hey, the vocal melody is untouched—and performed quite well (credited to Fhloston Paradigm featuring Pia Ercole). There are three tracks with the word “Contrapunctus” in the title. The first one is arranged by Max Richter and makes the case for new arrangements being applied to older works (his 2013 release, Recomposed by Max Richter - Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, was a best seller). The second one is performed twice, first by DJ Jeff Mills playing with sampled recordings by the legendary Kronos Quartet. The actual undoctored string ensemble recording is on the following track, though it might have made more sense to have the track sequencing go the other way.
Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond and AwRY, and Mia Doi Todd both compose their own songs, “Time Drinks Three Shots” and “Jardim do Amor”, which I didn’t know you could do on a Bach tribute album. Worden’s piece, clocking in at just under two minutes, heaps up many sweeping strings that don’t commit themselves to anything. The Latin-lite “Jardim do Amor” is better fitted for a fragrance commercial where someone is running along the beach in slow motion with a thin scarf trailing behind her. Why? Because…essence!. Anyway, the aforementioned “Dear Goldberg” is another original written by its performer. It’s a slice of dream/indie/pop set to baffle. “The count, he drinks his milk / To help him sleep” croaks Kahane in an unthreatening tone, following it up with “He asked the boy / To play him something sweet.” In between Kahane’s tepid tale of Bach working for one of his most famous patrons are interludes of Baroquen electric guitar to remind you that, yeah, he’s surrounded by serious musicians who can do fugues. Calling the song awkward and forced is putting it kindly.
For every genuinely transcendent moment on Red Hot + Bach, there seems to be another moment where it gets dragged into another place entirely. The directionless arrangement of “Passacaglia” by amiina pounds Bach’s nuances into a trancey mush (and what’s with the fear of proper capitalization with them and AwRY?). “Number Man” is credited to Bach himself but Paul de Jong slops together an unrecognizable track, drilling a vocal sample with the words “sixth sense” into your head. But then Victor Axlerod, Dustin O’Halloran and Julianna Barwick will make beautiful music on another version of “Minim” and “Very Own”. Their distance from the Bach material is played up with more class and subtlety. It’s a musical balance that everyone involved should stride for but don’t. Too many think that their idea of a Bach “homage” is album worthy. When charity albums fail to come with a recommendation, the common thing to say is “just send them a check.” Red Hot + Bach deserves to be purchased, but not all of it can be cherished equally.