The Bad Plus

I Aggregate Myself

The writing continues, even as a bought of viral misery kept me preserving my strength for things other than this blog. But I’ll be back in fighting trim soon.

In the meantime, I wrote my 100th column for ClassicalTV, something that came directly out of my waking fever dreams, and the May issue of The Brooklyn Rail is out with my piece, “The Producer as Critic.” Though it’s online, the article was written for print so was limit to about 750 words. Here I can augment it with specific examples of records that are either examples of excellent production, not just in recording quality but in how the music is put together, and of records that are harmed by bad production decisions.

You don’t have to enjoy Tears for Fears to listen with honest ears and hear the masterful production on Seeds of Love, not just “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” but the patiently made, sweeping arch structure of “Woman in Chains.”

Amok. from Atoms for Peace, is going to end up as one of the best records of the year, and one of the reasons is that it is brilliantly produced. The music is full of sounds, detail and activity, yet the sound is lean, almost minimal at times. It’s the product of great critical listening.

There were two records released last year from two excellent trumpeters, Phillip Dizack and Nadje Noordhuis, that were both harmed by their production. Dizacks’ End of an Era matches his powerful sound with emotional intensity, but it starts off at a fever pitch and never lets up from there. You have to be in a particular mood to enjoy the extreme intensity from the very first sound, and if you aren’t, the disc is off-putting. There’s a lot of good music on it, but it would have benefited from different sequencing. Noordhuis is a different player, lyrical and with a ravishingly beautiful sound, and her disc matches her musical personality as well. But why oh why put Geoff Keezer at the piano bench? He follows her understated, melodic playing by using his solos as an opportunity to strangle the tunes and crush them under his pounding hands. He’s totally out of place here and ruins mood and texture. It amazes me that Noordhuis didn’t hear this in the studio.

A producer needs to hear and think critically, be an advocate for not only things that work but things that are worth trying — be a critic in the essential meaning of the term. That’s what’s missing from the Bad Plus’ latest, which is yet another rehash of ideas they pioneered a decade ago. These guys are such smart, talented jazz musicians that it astonishes me they would settle on being so formulaic, they’re turning into a premature jazz version of the Rolling Stones. In contrast, the new Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds record, Push The Sky Away, is wonderful, because it maintains Cave’s core strengths as a songwriter and storyteller but pushes the music into entirely new territory, creating settings of loops rather than worrying about where the bridge and chorus go. It refreshes the music and makes it sound both familiar and brand new, because it’s truly both.

Jazz: Semi-Top 10 For 2011

Call it semi, quasi, ersatz, but kibitzing slowly on the heels of Jim Macnie, Patrick Jarenwattananon and Hank Shteamer, I’m motivated to put up an annotated list of what are the best jazz releases I’ve heard so far this year. These are records that were new, or at least new to me, up through June, so there are things that promise some hard challenges for these choices, like the upcoming Tyshawn Sorey release.

Like Hank, I’m excited over what has been a bounty of new jazz, new playing, new thinking, not only through this year but over the past few years. Aesthetically, the music is as strong and vital as its ever been, and the music is also exploring its own history in ways that are exciting, because there’s much more to jazz than Bird, Ellington and ’60s era Blue Note. Lists aren’t the best way to handle this, but they are not terrible and the practical consideration, at least for me, is that they help me craft some, hopeful, coherence out of my usual confusion and fatigue. And so, in no particular order (except what iTunes considers alphabetical) are the 10 best 2011 jazz releases for the first half of 2011:

Alon Nechustan: Words Beyond 

It takes time for a developing body of work to seep out to the public, even to the presumed vanguard of which I’m supposedly a part, so Nechustan’s already substantial body of work is new to me. I regret that because this is a great recording, and a total pleasure from beginning to end.

What to call this? New classic piano trio, perhaps. That group, as an interactive rather than homophonic unit, has been a stand-alone strand of jazz history since the Bill Evans Trio mesmerized the scene. Nechustan is an energetic, verbose, witty, good-natured and forceful proponent (as are bassist Francois Mouton and dummer Dan Weiss) of it. The band’s playing is full of verve. They have a real power, but it doesn’t weigh them down, everything moves and grooves, the interplay is outgoing and forward pointing. Nechustan has a highly developed two handed style and provides a lot of his own counterpoint, freeing up Mouton and Weiss to add accents, counter melodies and playfully antagonistic comments.

Nechustan as a pianist with a true, personal voice. There are touches of Keith Jarrett’s country-funk by way of Brad Mehldau’s structural sense, but he doesn’t sound like anyone other than himself. All the material is original, and there are smart and respectful bits of Monk and Ellington in tunes like “Different Kind of Morning” and “The Traveler.” He writes tunefully inside tracks that go well beyond standard blues and song forms, and he often weaves improvisation in between composed sections, which give a satisfying feeling of freshness and complexity. The record is full of the great legacy of jazz ideas, and is also completely new, and seems to improve with each listen. The epitome of piano trio jazz.

You can catch this group live, at the Cornelia Street Cafe, Sunday August 7, 8:30pm, for their CD release performance.

 Ambrose Akinmusire: When The Heart Emerges Glistening

Jazz has produced a great deal of beautiful music in its 100 years, but beauty is a quality that jazz frequently discounts: there are few musicians – Johnny Hodges being a particular exception – who have pure beauty as their main value. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is clearly dedicated to beauty, and his Blue Note debut CD is tremendously, powerfully beautiful.

Hodges idea of beauty was a certain diffident elegance of line, tone and form, a kind of Apollonian ideal. Akinmusire is a bit more Dionysian. His quintet, with Walter Smith III on tenor, Gerald Clayton, piano, Harris Raghavan, bass and drummer Justin Brown, has a powerful, plangent post-Coltrane sound, they like to sink pedal tones and toss some hefty sonic weight around. The sonic quality, which flows from the leader’s gorgeous tone, is beautiful, and the weight behind it just makes it physically and emotionally thrilling. The sound seems alive as it comes out of the speakers, forming into shapes in the air through which it moves.

The opening cut, “Confessions to my Unborn Daughter,” is the attention-getter, almost ten minutes of music that seems to be full of ever-unfolding, ever-burgeoning power. Akinmusire steps away for a great solo from Smith, who keeps his considerable fire just far enough away so we are in no danger, only delight. Everything is here from the start, and if there’s a bit of a drop-off in intensity in the rest of the disc, there’s none in quality. Everything is touched with a mature, masculine feeling for loveliness, even the short interludes variously titled “Ayneh.” There is one misstep, a sincere but unsuccessful reaction to the almost casual, horrible murder of Oscar Grant. The sentiment is worthy and understandable, the execution of the idea is not there yet. But the future is beautiful for Akinmusire.

Ambrose Akinmusire and Quintet play “Confessions to my Unborn Daughter” at Jazz Standard

 Aram Shelton’s Arrive: There Was . . .

In the Many-Worlds Theory of Jazz (which I’m making up on the spot), each new idea in the music, whether a grand conception (like Third Stream), or a development in soloing styles (modal playing, for example), leads to a splitting of a portion of the jazz universe, creating an entirely new ‘multijazzverse’ that from that moment on runs concurrent and parallel to all the current, extant jazz universes. A key element that differentiates jazz from quantum mechanics is that it’s possible to not only travel across the multijazzverses but to exist in more than one simultaneously. See here for further exploration of a similar concept.

One of these universes was created in the mid 1960s, on Blue Note records, through such classic albums as Out To Lunch, Destination Out and Point of Departure. The key features of this universe were a hard-driving, hard-bop style of swing, an exploration of non-standard forms of writing jazz tunes and harmony, a dose of free improvisation and an urgent, searching expression, full of questions without answers. A common thread was the cool, clean vibes of Bobby Hutcherson. Once that universe was created, it was left fairly moribund until the past decade, when a new generation of musicians, like Steve Lehman, set out to chart its features and possibilities. To that crew, add Aram Shelton, and this great, intriguing and unsettling disc.

By unsettling I mean this is jazz dedicated to what might be, rather than what is. Melodic lines, improvisational phrases, rhythmic patterns, these don’t necessarily resolve into neatly rearranged even lengths or consonant harmonic cadences. There is a seamless balance between notation and improvisation, and equal care and thought put into each. This band has an exciting exactitude to its sound; the lapidary coolness of excellent vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, Jason Roebke’s rolling bass patterns and the remarkable precision and drive of drummer Tim Daisy, sounding like a cross between the young Tony Williams (heard on many of those Blue Notes) and Joey Baron. Shelton has a big, slightly keening, slightly mournful sound. There are no standout tracks because everything is so good. Each time I try and pick an exemplary one, some other steals that attention. This is a disc full of ideas about the past and future of jazz, anchored by powerful emotional expression and wrapped in a brilliant surface. Whenever I put it on, it seems like the greatest thing I’ve heard.

 BANN: As You Like

What makes this so good? It’s a superb group playing at a state of the art level. More extensive review in this previous post. Read the whole thing for a review of another disc on this Top 10 list, Chris Parrello’s self-titled debut with his band, Things I Wonder. It’s got a few flaws, but the more I listen to it, the more the flaws sound integral to the music’s ambition, and to Parrello’s organic conception. I never imagined a band that could sound like it was forming itself, on the fly, out of a stew of jazz, fusion, prog-rock and punk. The Bad Plus cracked open this door, Parrello lopes through it, without any self-consciousness about making a statement. The Bad Plus comes to mind for the next release on this list:

 

 

 

 

 

Endangered Blood

I am familiar with the member of this band, reed players Chris Speed and Oscar Noriega, and the all-star rhythm section of Trevor Dunn and Jim Black. This is a muscular and deceptively subtle ensemble. You’d expect some thrash and a heavy rock feel with Dunn and Black, and there is some of that, but it serves as the seasoning in what is in many ways a straight-forward contemporary jazz group.

But what a group! The lack of an instrument to play chords seems to direct them towards the hard-earned values of constant interplay, counterpoint and support, in a style that comes, vaguely, out of Ornette Coleman’s concept. The sound is modern, the vocabulary is at times wonderfully archaic, like a musical cognate of the baroque, beautiful vulgarity of the dialogue from “Deadwood.” There’s an excellent examination of “Epistrophy,” the rest is original pieces from Speed, like the tender and haunting “K,” and the charmingly tipsy trad-style march, “Iris.”

It’s worth noting the sheer sound of this disc, which is upfront, natural and pleasingly rough. Part of that is Speed’s raspy tenor, but the engineering and production are excellent and unique. On a good system, it sounds like the musicians are right there in the room. And the band, along with it’s obvious might, is also relaxed, focused, witty and very humane.

Catch this band at University of the Streets, Wednesday, August 10 at 10pm.

 Honey Ear Trio: Steampunk Serenade

To my ears, Ethan Iverson’s group has not totally followed through on what they promised with their big label debut, These Are The Vistas (now almost ten years old). They proved that a group could play exceptional modern jazz with the stance and immediate excitement of a rock band, and have been doing that same thing, with varying quality, ever since. That idea is a beginning, not an end, and the Honey Ear Trio has picked it up and run with it.

The do play with a rock group’s immediate sonic and physical appeal, and do much more. While steampunk in music is pretty hard to identify, much less describe, this band gets close to it. The music reaches back into pre-jazz New Orleans marches and extends into Minute Men territory, and frequently casts the shadow of a classic power trio, with drummer Allison Miller the guiding force, bassist Rene Hart adding some screaming leads, and Erik Lawrence the front man on saxophones. These cats can really play, the musicianship is exceptional. Although they do only one standard, a rich “Over The Rainbow,” the music is full of history; with touches of Monk, moments that remind me of Steve Lacy’s great trio disc The Window, and always a persistent and most welcome flavor of the multijazzverse bequeathed by the partnership of David Murray and Butch Morris: a powerful sound that sits at the apex of the pyramid of history, and witty, pithy tunefulness, full of surprise and satisfaction.

There’s a great storehouse of musical material that the group accesses and stitches together, so the disc is full of both variety and focus. The thirteen generous tracks sound very different from each other and all of a whole. That this is a cooperative group with such a distinctive sound is even more impressive. The musicians are all new to me, and I will express my shame in that ignorance because their playing and thinking are so damn good.

 Ben Kono: Crossing

This CD, as much as I’ve enjoyed it from the start, was not in this list, nor even near it at first. But persistent listening, driven by a persistent desire to hear it more that the music clearly implanted in my head, has revealed its considerable virtues and accomplishments, and it deserves a place here.

Kono is one of the stalwart session men on the New York scene, from Broadway to the stellar big bands of Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck. His versatility as a player comes through on Crossing in a rich range of musical thinking; all the pieces are his own, and his writing makes excellent use of wordless voice, french horn, and his own terrific flute and double-reed playing. His writing makes the band, with Heather Laws the aforementioned singer/horn player, Henry Hey on piano, guitarist Pete McCann, John Hébert on bass and drummer Hollenbeck, sound enormous. The musical ideas come out of the contemporary legacy of sophisticated, internationally tinged jazz composition and orchestration, make use of the best lessons from the likes of Pat Metheny as well as his own colleagues. Kono places and emphasis on melody, and is a real craftsman, shifting his lovely lines through different textures and harmonies, combining sections that seem like bits of songs into larger forms and never losing track of where he has come from and where he is going.

There’s a great balance of beauty, grace and sheer cooking, and the stunning “Rice” shows this all off, with a sharp does of funk as well. Kono himself is a powerful player and an excellent improviser. My own slight caveat to the disc is entirely a bit of personal taste, and it’s that his tenor playing just a little too close to his clear forebears, Michael Brecker and Chris Potter. He has his own ideas, without a doubt, the tone is perhaps not 100% his own yet. This is not a problem on the other horns, and he appears to my ears to be at the top of contemporary jazz flutists. The surface quality of this recording may seem, at first, a bit smooth and safe, but I’m confident that the intelligence, craft and pleasure of it that rumbles under the surface will insinuate their way into your ears, as they’ve done with mine.

Matthew Shipp: Art of the Improviser 

A stupendous, monumental two disc set from an important musician, thinker and iconoclast. I’m saving a more thorough examination for an upcoming look at improvisation in general, but for now I think it’s valuable to admit that Shipp is a musician whom I’ve more admired than loved in the past. I respect his values and goals, share a number of them, but have found that the pleasure in listening to his music is often marred by a tendency towards didacticism and mannerism. There are scattered moments like that across this set, one solo and one trio recording, but they are few and ultimately overwhelmed by the incredibly depth, richness, power and mystery of the playing. If the title threatens pretensions, I would argue that it could be called The Art of Improvising and would fulfill that claim, and go far beyond it.

 MSG, Tasty!

Love the title, love the band, love the recording. Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose Apex was one of the pinnacles of 2010, is one of the cooking-est, blowing-est (and most delightful), players in jazz and blows the hell out of these eight sharp, hip vehicles, and Ronan Guilfoyle and Chander Sarjoe match him step (and stab, note, change of pace/meter/tempo) for step. Mahanthappa can torch your ears like a flamethrower when he wishes, but this session is more on the light-hearted side of intensity. He slows down for moments that explore his plangent tone, but in the main this is the kind of quick-thinking and forceful rhythmic articulation that is the welcome mainstream in contemporary jazz. Listening to Tasty! is like being driven through an exhilarating and slightly unnerving course in a Porsche, at high speed, by an expert driver. Your safety does not leaven the thrills. Delicious and satisfying.

 

 

Cash For Stash

In addition to my previous post, there’s a good handful of new CDs coming out next Tuesday:

Also, Knitting Factory is rereleasing/distributing current Fela titles at slightly cheaper prices, at least over the short term, incuding Shuffering and Shmiling/No Agreement and Zombie, which are essential titles.

All this offered with little critical insight; I’m carving out my own space here and am still scrounging for promo and review copies. Many labels don’t respond, and the bigger they are, the less likely they are to care about what I have to think. I was at the Crimson Grail performance and the New York City debut of Double Sextet, and I’m a personal fan of Sunny, Bleckmann, Parker and Fela. I’m curious about The Bad Plus, mainly because I wonder if they are staying with their formula while the rest of world is starting to pass them by, so caveat emptor.

UPDATED: Added missing link

SPF Factor Zero

I’m enjoying the accumulating comments and blog dialogue at A Blog Supreme, to which I’ve already contributed.  It’s especially interesting to see which records show up on multiple lists, and there are some consistent choices so far; The Bad Plus (a variety of records), Vijay Iyer’s “in what language?” and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society.  There’s nothing to dispute, it’s a great sample of records all around.

One thing I do disagree with is Patrick’s contention that jazz, especially modern jazz, just needs more exposure and it will be more popular.  Art Blakey made the case best when he said that jazz is an intelligent person’s music.  You don’t need a music education, but jazz is for people who take pleasure in thinking, as well as grooving, and jazz is for people who listen actively, who reach out to the music in attention and anticipation.  That is not the mass of Americans, and it never will be.

"You Know I'm Bad!"

So sang Michael Jackson, 20 years ago. And damn right he was “bad!” Now, lately, sadly, he’s just bad. For all the badness you need, the new resource is The Bad Plus.

They come at you with a big, bad bang on their major label debut, These Are The Vistas. A classic jazz piano trio set-up with an aesthetic equally rooted in rock, they rattled teeth from the opening moments on the album, playing fast and loud, with the propulsive and heavy ostinato of “Big Eater.” But it’s not all bashing and superior rock-style production, this is a jazz group, and these guys can really play. Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King have chops, interplay, they can improvise and they are absolutely playing jazz. It may be all straight eighth notes, but the music Miles Davis pioneered 40 years ago means that you don’t always have to swing. And the point of The Bad Plus is that they play like a rock band.

The rest of the record is continually surprising, exciting and satisfying, even after five years of listening. Their version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a rush of intensity and imaginative resetting. Yes, that is the Nirvana tune; jazz musicians have been playing pop tunes for decades, including Charlie Parker blowing “On A Slow Boat to China,” Sonny Rollins doing “Hooray for Hollywood,” early Miles doing show-tunes and latter Miles playing Cindy Lauper, Lester Bowie’s wonderful brass arrangements of Sade and Marilyn Manson, and Brad Mehldau spreading the word about Radiohead and Nick Drake to a jazz audience. There may be some shock to hear jazz versions of such contemporary music, but I imagine that’s how every generation hears it, with the inherent prejudice that the pop music of today is a poor version of the past. It ain’t necessarily so. I think it’s safe to say that the pop music of the 1930s-40s had a certain striving for wit and charm, but our times are different and call for different music. And wit and charm haven’t gone away, I’m just not sure jazz players will ever do much with Elvis Costello. Too many words, maybe. This is not a schtick, it’s a way to make great music out of tunes the players dig, and the band has plenty of great original material as well, like the lyrical “Everywhere You Turn,” which begins with an astonishing and beautiful fade-in. The band’s interplay tells me that, like all good music nerds, they grew up digging progressive rock – the proof comes later.

Their follow-up record was Give, and it’s even better in subtle ways. It’s more musical, more certain in it’s purpose, less needing to demonstrate that something can be done, a little more expressive. They play Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman,” and lay into “Iron Man” to end. That last cut is enjoyable and impressive, but it has a faint quality of obligation about it, as if the band, having done a trick, must now repeat it every time since the audience expects it. That can be a bit of a danger. That suspicion was confirmed by Suspicious Activity, which is the same thing, just a bit stale, and a disappointing three-pack EP of all covers, “Immigrant Song,” “We Are The Champions” and “Human Behaviour.” The music is giving way to the schtick, and considering the talents involved these records are disappointing indeed. Prog is a better listen than the latter records, but the sense of surprise, the sense that the band will surprise the listener, is almost gone. Name-checking the pop tunes is a slender interest, though their selection of “Tom Sawyer” goes along way to confirm my previous claim. Hey, it’s called “Prog.” But much as the title pleases my inner prog-rock nerd, the result is actually a little disappointing. They clearly are not going to have the power of Neil Peart driving them, but they also seem to be lacking the own sense of force that was so welcome all the way back on These Are The Vistas.

So now, there’s a new record out, For All I Care, and it’s generally a immensely satisfying return to form – the band is moving forward by going back to their roots, so to speak. Despite the strength of the original material, there is none of it on the record, and that’s all right. The addition is the indy-rock singer Wendy Lewis, and this is essentially a vocal record (there are three marvelous, short interludes based on a Stravinsky theme from his ballet “Apollo.”) Lewis herself is a mixed bag. She steps back and forth from indy-rock affectless, meaning artistic fecklessness, to chesty rock belting, and so she varies both from song to song and moment to moment. It doesn’t matter so much, though, because this is not a case of the band accompanying her, but her accompanying the band. Her presence seems to have them concentrating on playing, rather than putting on a show, and the playing is excellent. The choice of songs is also a nice mix of the expected and surprising. Nirvana appears on the opening cut, with an inventive stop-start take on “Lithium,” which is followed by a soaring, lyrical version of “Comfortably Numb.” I have never had any personal interest in Pink Floyd, but this has an irresistible magnificence to it. Another band which I’ve never cared for makes an appearance by proxy here, the Wilco song “Radio Cure.” Again, this is totally satisfying, continuing the anthemic lyricism which is at the heart of the band, and the secret heart of progressive rock. Lewis shines here, expressive as opposed to Jeff Tweedy’s po-face vocal style.

Another highlight is a properly fulsome performance of “long Distance Runaround,” which is probably melting nerd-hears, young and old, across America. As a long-time love of Yes – there, I said it – it’s a treat. One thing this band does consistently is treat all the material they play with respect, they really love this music. The proof is a dreamy, reverential take on, of all things, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.” And I don’t think Sarah Palin will be playing this version of “Barracuda” at her rallies, because in this setting, as with the whole record, every word of the lyric is crystal clear, and Lewis really shines her – she sounds her best when she really opens up. She also is a natural for “Lock, Stock and Teardrops.” She has a style but is not a particularly strong singer (pop singers can do, or turn to jazz, it just takes a lot of work – Curtis Stigers has done this successfully), and she’s frequently exposed in the production, but her presence seems to be the focus that has the band back to it’s muscular, supple, surprising best. Let’s hope for continued badness.

UPDATE: Lest I unintentionally misinform my readers, the variations on this record are two different performances of Milton Babbit’s “Semi-Simple Variations” and a variation from “Apollo.”

“You Know I’m Bad!”

So sang Michael Jackson, 20 years ago. And damn right he was “bad!” Now, lately, sadly, he’s just bad. For all the badness you need, the new resource is The Bad Plus.

They come at you with a big, bad bang on their major label debut, These Are The Vistas. A classic jazz piano trio set-up with an aesthetic equally rooted in rock, they rattled teeth from the opening moments on the album, playing fast and loud, with the propulsive and heavy ostinato of “Big Eater.” But it’s not all bashing and superior rock-style production, this is a jazz group, and these guys can really play. Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King have chops, interplay, they can improvise and they are absolutely playing jazz. It may be all straight eighth notes, but the music Miles Davis pioneered 40 years ago means that you don’t always have to swing. And the point of The Bad Plus is that they play like a rock band.

The rest of the record is continually surprising, exciting and satisfying, even after five years of listening. Their version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a rush of intensity and imaginative resetting. Yes, that is the Nirvana tune; jazz musicians have been playing pop tunes for decades, including Charlie Parker blowing “On A Slow Boat to China,” Sonny Rollins doing “Hooray for Hollywood,” early Miles doing show-tunes and latter Miles playing Cindy Lauper, Lester Bowie’s wonderful brass arrangements of Sade and Marilyn Manson, and Brad Mehldau spreading the word about Radiohead and Nick Drake to a jazz audience. There may be some shock to hear jazz versions of such contemporary music, but I imagine that’s how every generation hears it, with the inherent prejudice that the pop music of today is a poor version of the past. It ain’t necessarily so. I think it’s safe to say that the pop music of the 1930s-40s had a certain striving for wit and charm, but our times are different and call for different music. And wit and charm haven’t gone away, I’m just not sure jazz players will ever do much with Elvis Costello. Too many words, maybe. This is not a schtick, it’s a way to make great music out of tunes the players dig, and the band has plenty of great original material as well, like the lyrical “Everywhere You Turn,” which begins with an astonishing and beautiful fade-in. The band’s interplay tells me that, like all good music nerds, they grew up digging progressive rock – the proof comes later.

Their follow-up record was Give, and it’s even better in subtle ways. It’s more musical, more certain in it’s purpose, less needing to demonstrate that something can be done, a little more expressive. They play Ornette Coleman’s “Street Woman,” and lay into “Iron Man” to end. That last cut is enjoyable and impressive, but it has a faint quality of obligation about it, as if the band, having done a trick, must now repeat it every time since the audience expects it. That can be a bit of a danger. That suspicion was confirmed by Suspicious Activity, which is the same thing, just a bit stale, and a disappointing three-pack EP of all covers, “Immigrant Song,” “We Are The Champions” and “Human Behaviour.” The music is giving way to the schtick, and considering the talents involved these records are disappointing indeed. Prog is a better listen than the latter records, but the sense of surprise, the sense that the band will surprise the listener, is almost gone. Name-checking the pop tunes is a slender interest, though their selection of “Tom Sawyer” goes along way to confirm my previous claim. Hey, it’s called “Prog.” But much as the title pleases my inner prog-rock nerd, the result is actually a little disappointing. They clearly are not going to have the power of Neil Peart driving them, but they also seem to be lacking the own sense of force that was so welcome all the way back on These Are The Vistas.

So now, there’s a new record out, For All I Care, and it’s generally a immensely satisfying return to form – the band is moving forward by going back to their roots, so to speak. Despite the strength of the original material, there is none of it on the record, and that’s all right. The addition is the indy-rock singer Wendy Lewis, and this is essentially a vocal record (there are three marvelous, short interludes based on a Stravinsky theme from his ballet “Apollo.”) Lewis herself is a mixed bag. She steps back and forth from indy-rock affectless, meaning artistic fecklessness, to chesty rock belting, and so she varies both from song to song and moment to moment. It doesn’t matter so much, though, because this is not a case of the band accompanying her, but her accompanying the band. Her presence seems to have them concentrating on playing, rather than putting on a show, and the playing is excellent. The choice of songs is also a nice mix of the expected and surprising. Nirvana appears on the opening cut, with an inventive stop-start take on “Lithium,” which is followed by a soaring, lyrical version of “Comfortably Numb.” I have never had any personal interest in Pink Floyd, but this has an irresistible magnificence to it. Another band which I’ve never cared for makes an appearance by proxy here, the Wilco song “Radio Cure.” Again, this is totally satisfying, continuing the anthemic lyricism which is at the heart of the band, and the secret heart of progressive rock. Lewis shines here, expressive as opposed to Jeff Tweedy’s po-face vocal style.

Another highlight is a properly fulsome performance of “long Distance Runaround,” which is probably melting nerd-hears, young and old, across America. As a long-time love of Yes – there, I said it – it’s a treat. One thing this band does consistently is treat all the material they play with respect, they really love this music. The proof is a dreamy, reverential take on, of all things, the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.” And I don’t think Sarah Palin will be playing this version of “Barracuda” at her rallies, because in this setting, as with the whole record, every word of the lyric is crystal clear, and Lewis really shines her – she sounds her best when she really opens up. She also is a natural for “Lock, Stock and Teardrops.” She has a style but is not a particularly strong singer (pop singers can do, or turn to jazz, it just takes a lot of work – Curtis Stigers has done this successfully), and she’s frequently exposed in the production, but her presence seems to be the focus that has the band back to it’s muscular, supple, surprising best. Let’s hope for continued badness.

UPDATE: Lest I unintentionally misinform my readers, the variations on this record are two different performances of Milton Babbit’s “Semi-Simple Variations” and a variation from “Apollo.”