Pleasure in Slow Motion

Like kids in a candy store: Happy Apple consult with their spiritual adviser
Courtesy of Sunnyside Records

The pleasures to be found on Happy Apple's The Peace Between Our Companies might not reveal themselves on first listen. Some of them will still be hiding in a corner on seventh listen. Stick with it. The album grows on you, slowly. Slow is a theme here, as is quiet. Also fast and loud, but let's get back to slow. The sprawling "See Sun Spot Run," for instance, starts with drummer Dave King playing a simple 4/4 beat--underwater, apparently, and in slow motion. Boom...whack...boom...whack. Then these falling-down-the-stairs fills enter, and soon the kick drum isn't reliably landing on the downbeat and it's hard to say if this thing is being played in time or not. It is being played in time, though it's not really functioning as if it were. As with lots of really good jazz, there's an element of ambiguity to this stuff. Is the album's "Freelance Robotics" fully composed or entirely improvised? Hmm. Yes.

But back again to slow. Unlike earlier Happy Apple albums, Peace took quite a while to finish. It was recorded in three increments over a year and a half. During the sessions, the local trio collaborated with some outside players, including a Moroccan drum ensemble and a French pop singer. You can hear some of those collaborations on the European version of Peace, which in the tradition of pre-Sgt. Pepper's Beatles albums is much different than the American version. The U.S. version, by design or by happenstance, is rather disjointed. It contains eight tunes, six by King and two by bassist Erik Fratzke. Two are short and could fairly be called rock 'n' roll. Two are pretty but tricky ballads. Three are multi-part epics guided by a sleep-deprived logician. The opening cut, "Starchild Cranium," touches on all of these elements.

"Paulie's Quick Temper Has Gotten Him into a Few Jams" and "Go (base 13)" are the pressed-for-time rockers. Michael Lewis's tenor sax on "Paulie" skews R&B but the tune also has a free-jazz coda. "Go," on which Fratzke overdubs a rhythm guitar part, leans surf-punk and features a bridge co-written by the warm California sun. Some jazz bands play rock from a distance, like they're slumming, with a chaperone. Happy Apple play rock like they're cruising around Lake Nokomis. On Fratzke's "Dojo Fantastique" there's a section that can only be called troglodytic.

While we're still rockin', let's talk about Fratzke's tone. When plugging in a bass guitar, a lot of jazz types favor a clean, bright, and rather colorless tone. Clean can be okay, bright is iffy, colorless is always bad, the triune is lethal. Granted, that crisp sound, sometimes referred to as "dink tone," is a boon to clarity, since individual notes can get lost in the muddle of heavy low end and amp distortion. But heavy low end and amp distortion are two of the most attractive things about electric bass, according to Blue Öyster Cult records. Fratzke, who has heard a few of those, has little use for treble. He plays Godzilla bass: low, ornery. Still, he's a sensitive soul, at bottom. His super-fast runs are impressive, but it's his rich chords, voiced with a sort of intellectual tenderness, that give the lasting thrills. For a group with no proper chordal instrument, Happy Apple covers quite a lot of harmonic ground, and much of the credit should go to Fratzke. For the most picturesque of all his bass chords, turn to the elliptical, hopeful "Freelance Robotics," a really odd collection of interlocking parts that announce themselves with a gentle shoulder tap.

Yes, gentle. It's true that Happy Apple is sometimes easily excitable and prone to show off. They aren't above effusive emoting, some of it tedious. But that's no longer a defining part of their sound. As any autistic opera singer will tell you, the gaps between notes can be as profound and beautiful as the notes themselves. The trio knows this, Lewis in particular. The saxophonist, heard on alto on "See Sun Spot Run" and tenor everywhere else, seems to fill his playing with space. His economy is matched by his lyricism, especially on the soft upper-register work he turns in for the slower stuff. King, whose reputation as an overplayer isn't entirely unearned, is pretty damn restrained on Peace. During the meandering ballad "Let's Not Reflect," he plays a straight beat all the way through, hitting the rim of his snare on the two and four with almost comic persistence. His brushwork on "Ella by Nightlight" is caressing and inviting, as is the tune. It's a lullaby but certainly not a typical one. Listen to what happens one minute and ten seconds into the recorded version--that crazy diminished chord amidst so much prettiness. It comes back later, ghostlike. This lullaby, like this band, it seems, is of more than one mind. Here, I believe, is the lullaby's message: Yes, you should go to sleep, and also yes, something might get you in the middle of the night.

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