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Published: 2005/10/14
by Benjy Eisen

Suspicious Activity? – The Bad Plus

Columbia Records 94740

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but — dammit — I do. If your coffeehouse looks cozy I’ll stop for a scone, know what I mean? And rare is the occasion when I ask the ugly girl for a dime. It sounds asinine, yes, yes, I know. But look, man, all I’m trying to say is that if your album cover looks good, I’ll give it the time.

Stop. File that. Cut to next scene: Me, sitting at my desk, under the watchful eye of my legal team. When I agreed to review the new LP from The Bad Plus, I did so under one condition that I wouldn’t be required to mention Medeski Martin & Wood (or “MMW” or “Medeski” or any derivation thereof). Not a once. But fuck that, man, I’m going to voluntarily break my own rule. And it has nothing to do with the music. Because if it did, well then, I wouldn’t do it.

The Bad Plus and MMW sound about as similar as Phish and the Grateful Dead. It just ain’t happening, man. Now, there are some colleagues of mine that claim it’s all in the packaging (see first paragraph), and if that’s true, then shucks — I see why underpaid journalists in the local press would make the comparison. Both bands happen to look exceedingly hip. Certainly hipper than the scrubby 28-year-old wino who was sitting at his green-lamped desk in Ohio writing his 10-year-manuscript one year at a time when this disc, this Suspicious Activity? disc, drifted into his inbox and, lazily, he figured he’d knock off 150 words on it for the last page of the nightlife section, just cause he had the space and he had the time.

But he never actually played the disc, did he? Well, I did. Many times. And I’m going to knock off 1037 words, just cause I have the space and I’ll make the time. And although I predict that only 83 of these words will actually be about the music, all of them will sing the tune. It’s an instrumental disc and the tunes don’t need singing. So I’ll sing to them instead.

Cut to opening credits. The Bad Plus. Suspicious Activity? Columbia Records. PAUSE. Let’s dissect for a second (while the rest of you take a potty break or go get popcorn). The question mark is part of the title, not one of my inflections. And if one thinks that it might be just a tad (or is that “just a Tchad”?) bit suspicious that a band like The Bad Plus is signed to Columbia while a group like the Slip still has to sleep around, well then, that’s when I’ll look away and shrug. I’m a disinterested old wino just doing my job, man. Except that I’m not disinterested and I’m not even doing my job. There was a point to this, I swear, but it fell from my desk and I don’t want to bend over with my legal team standing behind me watching. So the first person that finds it should email it to the PR department at Columbia with my warmest regards. But let’s push play and move on.

Wait. Stop. Sorry to do this to you, again, but I just have to remind you of everything that I just tried to imply but didn’t want to have to come out and say. It occurs to me (as track three, “Let Our Garden Grow” plays in the background I didn’t take my own advice and haven't hit “pause” since I started this review) that I have to revert to being overt. Packaging. Album covers. Photo shoots. The Bad Plus has a handle on all of it. Much like another offbeat trio that I’m thinking of (no, not who YOU’RE thinking of, after all I already mentioned them once more than I said I would. No, I was thinking of the Beastie Boys, although, pride aside, all three trios qualify).

But in the case of The Bad Plus, and the reason I’ve spent so much time on this, is that their image is somehow incongruous with the music they make. I’m positive that I could go off on a thesis-length diatribe about this, (“For god’s sake, man, what’s it all MEAN?”) but I can see you’re getting impatient and our popcorn is getting cold.

So press play. Again. What you’ll hear is 2004’s Give, only a year older and two years the wiser. The Bad Plus continues to build on its post-bop piano-trio ideation, again under the direction of renegade producer Tchad Blake, and again yielding compelling results. Only whereas it was easy to give up on Give, it’s a little harder to let go of Suspicious Activity? Remember: I’m telling you, not asking. The question mark is part of the title.

Last year’s winning combination has come back, this time to win. Blake’s eclectic non-jazz production style, the band’s eclectic non-rock indie style, and the label’s non-experimental catalog style all make weird bedfellows but delightful offspring. Consider the rendition here of “(Theme From) Chariots of Fire.” Yes, it’s good. But it opens with a tentative bass groove before pianist Ethan Iverson enters with a hesitant run through the central melody — it’s the melody you hear in your head every time you run or race, the classic Chariots of Fire bit. Before long, however, Iverson’s fucking with the phrasing, forcing his rhythm section (David King, drums and Reid Anderson, bass) to engage in a game of cat-and-mouse. They chase him around the insides of the tune. King accelerates to a sprint but Iverson hangs the melody nonchalantly around its own corners. Anderson brings it around by politely walking the bass around to the finish line, and gently pushing it through. Good day, sir!

So, yeah, the album sounds as good as it looks. Even if it doesn’t sound as it looks. But whatever, man. Aw, forget it. The hour is late and my deadline is past and only on can I get away with this stuff. Thanks for listening. Thanks to The Bad Plus for playing. And let me send you off with the requisite quip. It’s the line I was going to start this review with before I decided to get all personal and sentimental: On their third full-length release, Suspicious Activity?, the Bad Plus earn their first check plus.

Like we didn’t see that coming.

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