For All I Care
It was inevitable, perhaps, that The Bad Plus would make an all-covers album. Each member of the celebrated Midwestern trio (pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, drummer David King) is an accomplished composer, delivering quirky pieces with new ideas about the boundaries of jazz harmony and rhythm; however, since their 2003 arrival on the international scene with a stomping take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the bulk of attention they’ve received has been for their exploratory versions of pop and rock songs, from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” to “Theme From Chariots of Fire.”
The Bad Plus maintains that this facet of their work is not a gimmick or novelty. They play the rock-era songs with humor and irreverence, but no more than on originals and jazz compositions. This music is simply the soundtrack to their time and place, just as New Orleans jazz was to Louis Armstrong and Kansas City blues was to Charlie Parker. Like those titans, the music The Bad Plus makes draws from the music they know—and that repertoire thus merits serious study.
For All I Care is, indeed, their first album with no original compositions, though it does include a minor country hit—Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock and Teardrops”—and short 20th-century classical pieces alongside the rock vocabulary. It’s also their first with a vocalist, rocker Wendy Lewis; this development is no surprise, either, since the band is on record as considering many rock lyrics more relevant than those of jazz standards but until now hadn’t investigated those lyrics in their own work.
But even if a covers disc and a singer were always going to happen, The Bad Plus might have avoided what came of them: the sense of novelty shtick they’ve always tried to avoid. “Comfortably Numb” provides the clearest example. Anderson, the most expressive player, rumbles alongside Lewis’ near-whisper on the Pink Floyd favorite’s A-section to create impressive malevolence; Iverson gives the B-section beauty with high, delicate arpeggios. But on the second B-section, as Lewis sings about numbness and long-lost dreams, Iverson spirals into abstraction that’s neither numbed nor wistful, only demented. That Lewis, Anderson and King perfectly sustain their parts against Iverson’s polytonality suggests that Iverson is overdubbed; it would explain why the musicians sound like they’re playing on separate planets.
The rest is hit-or-miss. “How Deep Is Your Love” outdoes the Bee Gees for tenderness, thanks to Anderson’s sparseness and King’s brushwork; “Barracuda” is a note-perfect remake of Heart’s original (down to the vocal echo on the bridge), but expertly rendered and with Lewis at her most comfortable; all four musicians share credit for a charming, oddly contented interpretation of the Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate.” But on “Lithium,” King and Anderson stretch the end of each line from 4/4 to 5/8, a neat technical trick that makes the song very ugly (perhaps Nirvana’s intention, but unlistenable anyway). The someday-I’ll-leave-you “Lock, Stock and Teardrops” has a creepiness that suggests the addressee should do the leaving—fast. As for the classical works, the band (especially King) sounds playful on Ligeti’s “Fém” and genuinely moody on Stravinsky’s “Variation d’Apollon,” but cold and mechanical on the two versions of Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations.”
The disc’s design flaw is that The Bad Plus retains their standard technique of stretching the harmonies and rhythms of familiar songs, appending Lewis to that approach rather than incorporating her. The lyrics decrease the songs’ flexibility, and the instrumentalists don’t adapt. It could have been avoided, or at the very least improved.