Monday, October 1, 2007

Anthems for the earnest?

Week before last I had the good fortune to accompany a friend to the new and improved theatrical production of GET YOUR WAR ON by Austin's own Rude Mechanicals, back in town from taking the show on the road after a national tour and a well-received participation in Edinburg Fringe. First-rate smart-ass agitprop that gets away with shooting easy targets on the raw strength of its comedic insight. I was convulsed in even more intense paroxysms of laughter than when the production first appeared two winters ago. There may still be time to catch this iteration if you are anywhere near Espoo, Finland.

The play is an adaptation of the brilliant Internet comic by David Rees. In otherwords, a cover. Of a cartoon. An Internet cartoon, comprised of clip art and word balloons. What better minimalist foundation for budget-conscious indie theater than these three panel haikus that capture the feeling of American life for thinking working people during this grey collar apocalypse better than anything else out there?

The play also features a kind of cover, a playback within the play, of the David Bowie song "Life on Mars?" A song which, I suspect, was thrust into the consciousness of the cultural cogniscenti when Wes Anderson ingeniously got Brazilian Seu Jorge to do an acoustic Portuguese language cover of it (and an album's worth of other vintage '70s Bowie) for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou -- not just for the soundtrack, but as a character, a member of the ship's Calypso-like crew, playing the songs as part of the actual filmic setting, on the deck and the dock. In a movie which, as it happens, was basically a cover of a 1970s Jacques Cousteau documentary, as reinvented by a guy who grew up watching those undersea adventures in the forgotten world before cable (and uses the opportunity to add some of the elements his 12-year-old self would have wanted -- guns, pirate raids, topless French chicks, and so on).

"Life on Mars?" is also covered on this summer's release from The Bad Plus, Prog (along with Rush's "Tom Sawyer," Burt Bachrach's "This Guy's In Love," and Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World"). The trio's prior album, Suspicious Activity?, featured, as it happens, a cover by David Rees lifted straight from Get Your War On.

Looking at this very small sampling of recent cultural consumption of artistic product by like-minded members of a common generation, one might observe that it seems excessively reliant on the incorporation of winking references to pop culture of the 1970s and environs. You know, how much irony can you beer bong into your brain before the intellectual hangover finally hits? (I can relate, having committed such culture crimes in my own work as incorporating excessive references to bad 70s television into short stories that try to rework men's adventure tropes in service of political satire.)

At Do the Math, all three voices of The Bad Plus did an outstanding job of answering that question last week, in a short essay that addresses the issue in the context of their own work, but in a line of argument that I think would apply to many other artists. After quoting a bunch of reviews riffing on the band's ironic jazz covers of contemporary pop/rock standards from Iron Man to Smells Like Teen Spirit to Chariots of Fire:

'...these 10 quotes illustrate a basic misapprehension about the band, which is that we play the covers as a joke or in a non-serious way. This is not true. We are serious about all the music we play, the covers included.

They are NOT a joke.


With the rare exception, TBP doesn't choose to improvise on music written from 1920 to 1965. Instead, we find it really interesting to search for ways to make rock, pop and electronica songs vehicles for contemporary improvisation. One reason that this material is not "standard" is that you can't call "Iron Man" at a jam session and pull off a mediocre interpretation of it the way you can with "All the Things You Are." There simply isn't a common language for it.

But just because the non-original songs we play can't be called at a jam session isn't the reason 10 English critics think it's a joke. Why do they think it is a joke? There are two possible reasons:

A) The original music itself is a joke: in other words, Nirvana, Blondie, Aphex Twin, ABBA, Neil Young, The Police, David Bowie, Burt Bacharach, Tears for Fears, Black Sabbath, Pixies, Vangelis, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Radiohead, Bjork, The Bee Gees, and Interpol is just inferior and not at the level of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood. Implied is the phrase "rock is not worthy of the jazz tradition."

B) The way we play the covers appears like parody or at least highly ironic.

Both are wrong.

It follows that if TBP loves these songs, we love playing them. As far as irony goes, let's dismiss our versions of Nirvana, Bowie, Aphex Twin, and Pixies right now: there is nothing but respect in our reworkings of them. But at least three of our covers could generate confusion: "Tom Sawyer," "Iron Man," and "(Theme from) Chariots of Fire." Until you hear us play those three pieces, it is fair to think we are being totally ironic.

Tom Sawyer. Rush is unsexy and Ayn Randian. (The lyrics to "Tom Sawyer" are an easy target.) But Rush is also feel-good music: when this song comes on the radio, even girls like it. And we respect Rush for creating a universe with their bare hands, carving out their Monstrous Math Rock from the granite quarries of Toronto. There is also an intimate connection between TBP and Rush, since Reid Anderson and Dave King bonded over them when they first met. Face it: whatever you dig at 13, you will dig for the rest of your life. (See also this post for more of Dave on Neil Peart.)

Iron Man. OK, this is a pretty weird choice: Science fiction lyrics (He was turned to steel/In the great magnetic field/Where he traveled time/For the future of mankind) and the original Birmingham headbangers. Look, though, that is a powerful riff. When we kick this song, we AREN'T JOKING. We really try to bring the doom with just our poor little acoustic instruments. Our earnestness was rewarded with the ultimate compliment: Geezer Butler put our "Iron Man" on the Black Sabbath iTunes "celebrity playlist" with the comment, "Has to be the most original cover version of any song ever! Saw them at the Knitting Factory in L.A. -- mind-blowing!"

(Theme from) Chariots of Fire. Choosing to play this song is unquestionably ironic, especially if you check out Vangelis' original video, one of the corniest things ever made. But there is more than meets the eye here. First of all, this was one of Ethan's showpieces when he was 11. He loved it then and he loves it now. Also, it IS really a good tune. Soho the Dog just wrote about it:

"If you're a really honest composer, then you know that the question isn't so much whether or not you'd give up a body part to write an earworm as indelible as the theme from Chariots of Fire, but rather, how many, and which ones."

Finally, our exploration of "Chariots" is an embrace of grand drama to express complex emotions. After the blackest, most dissonant free jazz we can play, the tune rises at the end in a mighty crescendo. The feeling is "WE CAN WIN!" There is no irony in this feeling. It's one of those moments where you can put a lot of people together on the same page: We remember an outdoor performance of "Chariots" in Prospect Park for several thousand people that went particularly well. The massive roar of the crowd afterward was not "that was a successful snark, guys!" but one of pure joy.

Irony -- and its allies: surrealism, sardonicism, and dementia -- do occasionally play roles in our music, just as it does in the work of many artists we admire. Consider some famous performances of jazz standards: What is more ironic than Thelonious Monk's "Just a Gigolo?" What is more surreal than Duke Ellington's trio version of "Summertime?" What is more sardonic than Charlie Parker's quote of "Country Gardens" at the end of many ballads? And what is more demented than Django Bates' "New York, New York?"

But just like with those artists, irony is just a small part of the story in The Bad Plus. Here's our real story: We love songs. We believe in the power of song. We write songs as well as we can. There is not anything in TBP's repertory that is not based on melody, originals included. Thinking that we are not serious about the melodies we play is incorrect.

Once, a very straight-ahead jazz player came up to us after a gig and said, "You know, I'm surprised! 'Heart of Glass' is actually a good song!" Hell yeah it is.'


In otherwords, earnest irony? Right on. Turn it up and pass the cathode ray beer bong.


Dave Hardy said...

Maybe I've imbibed too much Alexei Monroe and Slavoj Zizek,but Bad Plus makes perfect sense. There are all kinds of thing encoded inside pop music that can be brought to the surface, but it does call for utter sincerity.

I once made the mistake of saying that nobody in Yugoslavia got the joke in "Geburt Einer Nation" and the young Slovenian with me just looked puzzled. "What joke?" she asked.

Now I see there wasn't one.

Christopher Brown said...

Is it really possible to imbibe too much Slavoj Zizek?

Speaking of which, the 2005 documentary Zizek! is worth checking out. Unfortunately, despite the exclamatory title, it is not a musical.