The Bad Plus: They’re not for walking around. That’s the phrase that kept coming into my head as I tried to figure out which songs would get nudged into like and which ones into keep while I listened to their self-titled debut album. Some were easy: I knew I’d want to keep their great cover of Abba’s “Knowing Me Knowing You,” but thought “Blue Moon” was a little too cute with its sped-up and tempo-shifting head. But there were tougher ones, and that was due in large part, not necessarily to the quality of the song but more often to the fact that if I keep something on my phone I have this view that I’m going to be listening to it on shuffle in noisy environments while walking around the city. And some of these tunes, particularly in the latter half, just don’t work in that environment.
It is jazz, after all. The Bad Plus play so much in the rock idiom, with their choices of cover songs (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” gets the de rigeur treatment here, to mixed results), their arrangements, and the sound they choose to press. But it’s still a jazz trio. There’s nothing more here than bass, piano, and drums, and there’s only so much dynamic compression can do to make jazz sound more familiar to ears raised on 80’s and 90’s rock.
But I love these guys. I love their approach, and I love their execution. Sometimes it takes a little longer to get, like with this album, but sometimes I grab it right away, as I did with For All I Care. But when I do get it I always like it, and they stand up to repeat listens far better than just about anything else in my collection. So there’s a reward for the initial work here, even if it is a work that’s hard to gain community joy from. This is not as good as For All I Care in terms of accessibility or execution, but it’s very good, bordering on great, and boldly lays out what The Bad Plus is about, making an auspicious statement about the rest of their career.
So the album worked its way up from three clowns to four from the initial listens to review time. But how did I resolve those like vs. keep battles? I stopped fighting the battles. SinceI’m listening to a lot more music on my Windows Phone 7 phone now, I’m going to go with their rating system: full heart, open heart, and broken heart. (I have a to-do to get those icons at the bottom of this post, but the descriptions will work for now.) Those will basically map to mix, keep and like, and ditch, respectively, but they also match how I think about songs more anyway. The like/keep distinction was a bit false given that it seems I’ll always have to make tradeoffs about what music I want to keep with me on the go anyway. And it pains me to penalize songs as good as The Bad Plus’ just because it can’t rock louder than a bus stop.
- Knowing Me Knowing You – Great. Could have been mix if it didn’t start off so meanderingly, but I love this.
- Blue Moon – At the start this seems like an experiment that didn’t work. Tempted to ditch this.
- 1972 Bronze Medalist – jagged rhythm. One of the three best tracks on here. This is jazz that rocks. It’s like Coltrane blowing his lungs out on the piano. Just fantastic.
- The Breakout – jagged rhythm at top, then kind of a slow ballady thing. goes back and forth. A little bit immature the way it goes back and forth, but that’s my only real complaint. Love the drum work. Almost keep.
- Smells Like Teen Spirit – Probably the worst one on here. Was this still novel at this time to do a version of this? 2001. Nope. This gets better when it gets further afield from the bland “here we are now” and the “hello hello” riffs.
- Labyrinth – Starts off very slow. A nice piano line, but there’s not too much here.
- Scurry – uninspired drum solo. Leaning like here as well.
- Love Is The Answer – love the start. great piano line. Leaning like, I think, as it kind of gets bogged down in bass solo land in the middle. But it’s a pretty good bass solo, and I really like the colors and textures of this piece. Totally dig this. I’m always encouraged when bands seem to know what their best songs are, and the placement of this and “Knowing Me Knowing You” indicates that The Bad Plus got it for this record. The bassist’s best song.