The Bad Plus / Wendy Lewis For All I Care Heads Up International
If you are The Bad Plus, and you've spent your acclaimed and wacky career dismantling pop and jazz tunes down to their barely recognizable componentsspreading those components around like bike pieces on a garage floor and building them back together into a state that bears only occasional resemblances to its source materialit is not the easiest thing in the world to advertise for helpers.
But when the band found itself looking to employ a singer for the first time, the hiring process was surprisingly speedy. "We felt like it was time for something different, (but) we didn't want to get a jazz singer," says bassist Reid Anderson. "We wanted someone with a direct approach, because that's really what we do as well."
To those familiar with The Bad Plus' work, this might come as a bit of shock. But Anderson has proofand a history lesson. One of the precedents for the project, he says, was saxophonist John Coltrane's work with vocalist Johnny Hartman. "That was a very established band, with an established sound, that went into the studio with Hartman to record some songs. But the result is so powerful. It's not like a singer with a band, it's this collective music-making thing."
With For All I Care, The Bad Plus opted to keep things as simple as possible within the new set of sonic guidelines. "Amid all the other things going on, we're always very aware of the melody. So we wanted someone who wasn't as focused on changing the melody as doing it in a direct but personal way, but who also could deal with shifting time signatures and...unpleasant surprises. It had to be somebody who was capable and even enthusiastic about a musical underpinning that wasn't always going to be co-operating with them."
The answer came in Minneapolis vocalist Wendy Lewis, who gets front cover billing and to whom is left the difficult task of melding organically with one of the weirdest, hardest-to-describe, Bee Gees'-covering hipster crossover jazz trios currently working. Anderson says, perhaps semi-seriously, that he gets just as excited talking about the Carpenters as he does about Charles Mingus.
Lewis, Anderson continues, was a longtime associate of The Bad Plus' drummer David King. "I had remembered a demo Dave had made (with Lewis) 10 years ago. I was just so struck by the vocals, the sound of her voice." And when it came time to add a singer to The Bad Plus' bizarro-world mix, the fit was perfect. She was the only person the band approached to do this record.
And that record is a sticky, melancholy and effective merging of vocals to The Bad Plus' hall-of-mirrors jazz. Longtime admirers should be pleased by the crossover aspect, and Lewis' voice lends a new level of accessibility to some of the trackslike the swelling, powerful and surprisingly straightforward take on the Flaming Lips' "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate," the crushing "Comfortably Numb" and a syrupy take on Nirvana's "Lithium."
The Bad Plus, of course, has drunk from the Nirvana well before, on perhaps the band's most recognizable and adventurous cover to date: "Smells Like Teen Spirit," included on their breakthrough album "These Are The Vistas (Columbia, 2003). "Lithium" differs from its flanneled predecessor in several crucial areas: it seethes rather than roars, there's no crashing cathartic middle, and though the song retains the original's mostly cloudy forecast, it kind of throws the time signature into a lottery-ball machine (though the band swears the version adheres to an unorthodox but consistent signature). It works. It's like Weird Al doing Star Wars songsit's been done, sure, but things can work twice.
In fact, the whole album works, in its extremely singular way. If you find yourself in need of explaining the group's jagged appeal, tell someone the new record goes from the Bee Gees to Heart to a composition by tricky classical composer Milton Babbitt ("Semi-Simple Variations"). Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," against all odds and many of nature's current physics laws, gets bleaker, isolated, more shut-down than even the original, even while Lewis swirls up an unusually lovely harmony vocal. It's one of the few points on the record where The Bad Plus + 1 stay in the same room as the playbookat least until pianist Ethan Iverson and drummer King start sweeping the rug out from underneath Lewis' feet, first in a tricky manner, then in such a way that it sounds like the theatre is falling to pieces around them, like that Bugs Bunny cartoon with the conductor.
The Wilco ballad, "Radio Cure," gets a similar peeled-to-the-bone reading, with Lewis and Anderson opening things under a bare lightbulb: "There is something wrong with me." Elsewhere, the damp, lowlit version of "How Deep Is Your Love" will scare the pants off of most Bee Gees fans. "Barracuda," meanwhile, could be played on Guitar Hero. "It's just the energy of a great rock tune," Anderson says of the song. "And that's the only song where the original has a female vocalist. We thought, 'This is perfect for what Wendy can do.'"
But for all The Bad Plus' signature oddnessthe record is all cover versionsthe album's most experimental moment might be its most accessible: a late-show cover of the Flaming Lips' "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate." This may be one of only a few cases in which The Bad Plus' version of a pop song is a little bit less nuts than the original. Before it's out, the track, Lewis' best vocal performance on the disc, works up a sudsy purple lather that you can easily imagine being played on radio. At the very least it will appeal to the lively blog world surrounding the Lips.
But, as always, The Bad Plus find a way to distill random-sounding source material into a single, whole sound. "This had to be a Bad Plus recordit's the sound of four people making music together, not the sound of a singer with a backup band," says Anderson. "So we had to get somebody who'd be willing to come into our worldand able to, because the kinds of things we're throwing at Wendy aren't the kinds of things that just anyone can deal with. That's the whole aesthetic of The Bad Plus: it's group music. This had to continue in that tradition."
Tracks: Lithium; Comfortably Numb; Fem (Etude No. 8); Radio Cure; Long Distance Runaround; Semi-Simple Variations; How Deep Is Your Love; Barracuda; Lock, Stock And Teardrops; Variation D'Apollon; Feeling Yourself Disintegrate; Semi-Simple Variations (Alternate Version).
Personnel: Reid Anderson: bass, vocals; Ethan Iversion: piano, bells; David King: drums, vocals; Wendy Lewis: vocals.