Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Bad Plus

Recent listenings:

Has there been a songwriter in the last 100 years who has written more tenderly and movingly and ecstatically about marriage and parenthood than Brian Wilson? His marriage songs melt me: “And Your Dream Comes True,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “I Do,” “We’ll Run Away” -- and I didn’t even like the only hit of the bunch, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” until I got married myself. On parenthood, there’s “When a Man Meets a Woman” (which is a little weird), and, better, “I Wanna Pick You Up,” from the eccentric mid-’70s collection Love You. My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey has recorded a gorgeous cover of it, with his kids singing back-up. Jay brings a warmer timbre to the song than gruff (though charming) mid-’70s Brian was managing, and he comes up with some tasty backing on organ. I don’t how long he’ll have it up, so check it out. At the same link is his 4-year-old daughter Lilly’s spirited rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and two songs from his terrific EP of last year.


“Shadow Dancers,” the lead track from The New Boss Guitar of George Benson with the Brother Jack McDuff Quartet. Benson’s first alb as a leader, age 21, catchy swinging funky jazz of 1964. Tasty guitar, honking tenor sax from Red Holloway, fine swing from drummer Montego Joe and bassist Ronnie Boykins, and fine uncredited bongos which the liner notes speculate may have been played by organist McDuff who otherwise is not heard on the track. Benson has been a star as long as the Rolling Stones.


I got the soundtrack from the recent movie Music and Lyrics from the library. The two main songs by Adam Schlesinger have gotten a lot of praise, but I haven’t read anything about how subtly he crafted the movie’s through-song, “Way Back Into Love,” which the protagonists spend the movie writing.

The chorus comes around three times, followed by a tag that lasts longer each time. After the first chorus, the singers sing “Whoa-oa-oa-oa.” After the second, they sing, “And if I open my heart again / I guess I’m hoping you’ll be there for me in the end.” And the song’s climax comes with the third post-chorus tag, where the singers passionately, ecstatically declare their love and commitment, “And if I open my heart to you / I’m hoping you’ll show me what to do / And if you help me to start again / You know that I’ll be there for you in the end.” Hooray for love!

The faux-’80s “hit” in the movie, “Pop Goes My Heart,” is an instantly catchy synth-pop number with happening electric drums, and a clever-sweet chorus, “I said I wasn’t going to lose my head / But then Pop! goes my heart / I wasn’t going to fall in love again / But then Pop! goes my heart.” And it isn’t until the lead-up to the last chorus, when the band goes quiet and foregrounds the lyrics, that I noticed the poignancy of the situation. Before reiterating the chorus, the singer repeats the lead-up lines, this time more prominently, “A twist of fate makes life worthwhile.” Life wasn’t worthwhile, he wasn’t going to love again, and then Pop! went his heart! The tone of the song emphasizes present happiness, rather than the melancholy of the immediate past. Numerous pre-rock pop songs share the same story but with an inverted emphasis: The Glenn Miller and Etta James hit “At Last” (music by the great Harry Warren) being perhaps the most well-known example -- at last, against expectations, and can you believe it -- love.

Someone stole the booklet notes from my library copy, so I don’t know who wrote the Britney homage, “Buddha’s Delight,” sung by the movie’s “current” pop star, played by Haley Bennett. It’s a clever Bollywood-dance-hit pastiche, with a catchy distorted-synth Bollywood-style riff opening the tune, and a catchy tune and chorus, and really disrespectful Buddhist-Hindu pastiche lyrics for a sex song, which I might find hilarious if I were an ex-Buddhist or ex-Hindu, but I’m not, and so it just strikes me as tres cheeky, regardless of whether the writer is from a Hindu or Buddhist background. If not, then add a dollop of entitlement to the cheekiness.

A number of Top 40 rock and R&B hits of the last few years have shared a musical trick that always catches my ear: An abrupt and unexpected full-band stop that sounds as if all the air is being sucked out of the room for a beat. The opening of “Buddha’s Delight” pulls the same effect, and I finally figured out why it sounds like the song is dropping into a vaccuum: The songs all share a reverb-y atmosphere, and when all the sound vanishes, without the slightest echo, it is psycho-acoustic space that is disappearing -- not just the air, but the whole room. And it sounds neat-o.


On the recommendations of John Rockwell (in a terrific essay in this book) and Jody Rosen (anachronistically known as the Anachronist -- in comments), I got Burl Ives’s greatest hits from the library, a collection spanning 1945 to 1967. As a kid, I knew him as the narrator and singer of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer annual TV show, and from a gas station my parents had bought for me a Disney compilation on which Ives sang “Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly).” At some point I saw him in the video Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, menacing the young lovers as Big Daddy, and he was great, so the shock of finding him a powerful singer is less than it might have been.

The collection’s shocker is a 1952 murder ballad, “One Hour Ahead of the Posse.” With terror and madness, over a galloping proto-rockabilly beat, with sinuous electric-guitar accompaniment, Ives sings of how he shot his sweetheart, broke out of jail, and is heading for the border, where, if he gets across the Rio Grande before the posse catches him, he’ll be free. If it weren’t for the Anita Kerr Singers genteelly harmonizing behind him, I’d be more tempted to call it the first rock-and-roll record. It’s got the beat, it’s got electric guitar, it’s got the passion, it’s got the misogyny. But, unlike later rock murder ballads, it’s not misogyny-without-consequences. And the consequences are in Ives’s voice too. A great performance.

He doesn’t make it. He gets shot right at the river’s edge. But the ending is ambiguous, and it almost sounds to me as if, in despair and horror at what he has done, he decides to kill himself. “May the Lord have mercy on my soul.”

Ives is another case of mistaken identity. Like Carl Sandburg, he grew up poor; Ives’s parents were poor tenant farmers. But Ives and Sandburg got assimilated into middle-class culture. Their reps are middle-class corniness. There’s a lot more going on there.


I got Suspicious Activity? by The Bad Plus from the library too, on the recommendations of Devin Hurd and Kyle Gann.

I was intrigued but . . . suspicious . . . when I saw the “Theme from Chariots of Fire” listed on the disc. A great catchy yearning uplifting tune, the unacknowledged theme song of all runners-with-earphones everywhere, I worried that the Bad Plus would distort the melody, as has sometimes been the fashion when contemporary jazzers meet contemporary pop.

They don’t distort it. The let the melody sing.

And they majorly mess with the harmonies and rhythms.

It’s a true trio, with all three members contributing compositions, and the three instruments in a more-egalitarian relationship with one another than is common even in free jazz. And they’re not exactly free jazz, though they have a lot of “free” influence. The compositions are tough and beautiful, and I love love love how they can keep the melody lyrical while wailing the rhythms and timbres in fierce “freedom.” Some of the tunes are quiet too, and no matter what they’re doing, the band has a band sound, a unique style. An album for my personal pantheon -- their style and their sound gets to my internal beauty spots throughout the album, in a sustained way that few albums do. I hope to see them live some time.


More more more more more more more -- for another time.

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