Brad Mehldau's latest CD has been received with a full spectrum of praise and criticism. Some critics and fans have hailed Largo
as an innovative, artistic triumph; others, hearing the same recorded music, find little more than an incoherent muddle of unrelated sounds. Unfortunately, my own reaction falls into the latter camp.
Mehldau eschews his usual trio format for this recording, tailoring a different group--varying from two to eleven pieces--for each individual track. Perhaps inevitably, then, the recording has little sense of continuity; Mehldau's piano and Jon Brion's production are the only constants. But not only do the individual tracks fail to mesh with each other and create a greater entity, the tracks themselves seem patched together from disparate and incongruous elements. Largo
starts positively enough with the pianist's "When it Rains," a pretty ballad with an attractive arrangement of winds and the steady bass playing of Larry Grenadier--surely it is more than coincidence that the album's best cut is one of only three featuring his regular bassist. This is followed by "You're Vibing Me," a deceptive piece that starts out with Mehldau's faux cocktail jazz vibes before turning into something more intense as Mehldau switches to piano.
It is with the third track that the album begins to lose momentum. The unfortunately titled "Dusty McNugget" is an unfunky piece of ersatz funk, the effect of which is not helped by an odd horn section that is more reminiscent of Elgar than of, say, the JB Horns. "Dropjes" is a piece of free improvisation that begins somewhat promisingly but, in the end, adds up to nothing but a wank-fest.
Much of the rest of the album is given over to various experiments with rock and roll and, perhaps predictably, this is the portion of the record that has been the source of most of the buzz and commentary surrounding it. Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" is given a good, if overlong, reading here, and "Sabbath," Mehldau's original paean to heavy metal is a worthy experiment, albeit a failed one to my ears. The two selections from the Beatles eponymous ("White") album, however, are--and I don't use this word lightly--abominable.
John Lennon's wistful ballad "Dear Prudence" seems, on the face of it, like a perfect template for Mehldau's type of ballad playing. Unfortunately, he gives it a jaunty, almost reggae, rhythm and completely ignore the thematic and narrative elements of the original recording and lyrics in crafting his improvisation. What's worse, percussionist Matt Chamberlain and drummer Jim Keltner--the latter of whom recorded many albums with Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr--carry the beat for several bars after the rest of the group have finished. I don't know whether this is actually part of the arrangement or a mistake they opted to leave in, but the effect created is of the worst type of amateurish, garage rock ending, and seems disrespectful not only to the late John Lennon, but also to their meticulous producer George Martin.
Paul McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son" is paired with Jobim's "Wave" and, for no apparent reason, married to a fast, electronic sounding drumbeat. Mehldau plays the melodies of the two songs with little elaboration and at a normal tempo on the vibraphone while producer Brion spews out annoying synthesized guitar licks. There's polyphony, there's dissonance, and then there's just cacophony. I don't know, though--maybe this one makes more sense high on MDMA or methamphetamine. Largo
is an overwrought mess, in the end adding up to less than the sum of its parts. For every well-executed track, there's an ill-conceived experiment or clever-clever waste of time, and the good parts aren't enough to offset the bad. Brad Mehldau remains an amazing talent, though, and everyone is entitled to a bad album now and again. Next time out, let's hope he and whomever he works with edit the proceedings a bit more judiciously.