Music

The Bad Plus: For All I Care

Evan Sawdey

By adding a vocalist, the Bad Plus feel reduced to mere backing-band status, something that a group this talented should never, ever be subjugated to.


The Bad Plus

For All I Care

Subtitle: Joined by Wendy Lewis
Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2009-02-03
UK Release Date: 2008-10-20
Amazon
iTunes

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.

4

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image