This is Blah's long-awaited debut release. An eclectic assortment of unfortunate accidents that stumbles and falls somewhere in that exquisite grey area between pure old-fashioned entertainment, pre-harmonic bop, and Canada's new wave of avant garde mariachi.
Jean Martin and Nick Fraser (aka Skins) simultaneously play one drum kit, Justin Haynes plays home-defretted guitar, Ryan Driver plays a bristle from a standard street-sweeper (as a bass), and Tania Gill plays melodica. The results are truly unprecedented. It's Only Life! features wild-hearted interpretations of fascinating original compositions by each member of the band (with a few Mexican classics interspersed). Blah blah blah blah blah blah...
If Roberto Benigni was Mexican and a musician, he may have recorded this CD, or something cheerful like it. Coming as it does from some of the musically loopier members of the Toronto improv community, who have banded together under the moniker Blah Blah 666, It’s Only Life delivers a healthy dose of plain old good feeling and “naïve” melodicism. Case in point, “Home Sexuality,” with its rippling melodica lines and Hawaiian lap steel undergirding. Slightly weirder, and also penned by Justin Haynes, “Chico Lympico” lurches along with a unison melody that continually totters near losing it, like a drunken tightrope walker. If you like things a bit more rock, check out drummer Nick Fraser’s “Dogs,” with its rubbery, fretless lead guitar licks sounding like a spunky Ribot-meets-Beefheart’s-Magic-Band hybrid. Ryan Driver’s droopy-eyed vocalizations and his “Distracted by the Moonlight” come with a sweet melodica solo that verges on self-destruction but keeps it together with warm/fuzzy grace. Unlike so much post-modern stuff that drips with irony and condescension towards its plundered sources, It’s Only Life! brims with life-affirming vitality, humour and genuine good cheer. This is a heart-warming listening experience. (Barnyard)
This witty, playful album is the work of five Toronto musicians who usually work the avant-boho side of contemporary music. Most of the songs take a beat or a song form that we all know (often Latin in flavour but not always) and twist it around with rough affection. Justin Haynes's Blossom, like several other tunes on the disc, is too impatiently creative to stick with one thing for long - the piece is a medley that spirals through several personalities as fluidly as an actor reading three parts at once. Jean Martin's Specificity brings out its tune in a series of squeaks, twangs and string-rattling thrums, as if it were being played on an orchestra of broken toy instruments. Other tunes sound like bent forms of mariachi or woozy, twenties-style Eurojazz. Four old Mexican songs are probably best heard while holding a broken sombrero over your heart.
These days if you’ve got a freaky improv combo that you’re hoping will click with the hipster crowd, you’ll need at least a ukulele, glockenspiel or melodica as a feature instrument. Blah Blah 666’s Justin Haynes, Ryan Driver, Tania Gill and Nick Fraser aren’t taking any chances and use them all prominently on the jaunty avant-folk jams of It’s Only Life.
The enjoyably loopy results – they cover La Cucaracha and the Mexican Hat Dance – seem better suited to Corona-sipping back-porch BBQs than a Ph.D thesis in advanced composition, and judging by their charming matching-shorts-’n’-T-shirts bandwear, that’s exactly what they were shooting for.
In the November issue of Exclaim, I wrote a profile of Jean Martin's strange and amazing recording/composition space, the Farm. Actually the Farm is his and Christine Duncan's loft, and is not rural in the least.
Martin's label, Barnyard Records, is about to drop a titanic trio of records on an unsuspecting audience at the Lula Lounge on Dec. 3. Like the Rat Drifting label, Barnyard likes to release many discs at a time - perhaps like RD in order to concentrate the amount of promotion activity associated with the label.
The three discs are the Martin/Justin Haynes ukulele/suitcase (that's right, Martin plays suitcase exclusively on the disc. I've seen the suitcase. It isn't pretty) duets of Myk (St. Dirt Elementary School) Freedman, a duo composed of Anthony Braxton and his padawan Kyle Brenders, and this inflated bit of whimsy with an awesome name: Blah Blah 666.
This is something of a Tranzac supergroup composed of Tania Gill, Nick Fraser, Ryan Driver (aka 3/4 of Deep Dark United) with Haynes and Martin. St. Dirt's junkyard jazz certainly plays a part in this music, as instruments like 'defretted electric guitar' and 'street sweeper bristle' would fit right in to Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids. The music, however, may be best described as 'avant mariachi' cause you ain't never heard a Mexican hat dance done quite like this. The music is usually quite zany, in a found sound meets hot jazz sense, with a dash of Beefheart on the side. It's a testament to the madcap nature of this disc that I played it after Sun Ra this week and Mr. Blount sounded humourless by comparison.
I can't say that it's my instant favourite record of the year, but I also anticipate an epiphany at some point at which point I won't be able to stop listening to it for days or even weeks at a time.
Pooling members from inside the Toronto improv scene, Blah Blah 666 remain an iconoclastic outfit. Their chosen name and album title belie their relaxed spontaneity. Starting with a straightforward overture featuring soft vocals and slide guitar, their music quickly gives way to unhinged time signatures, consistently defying my expectations at ever turn. Their solipsistic approach to musical styles reminded me of staying up all night with good friends, and the slap happy feeling that comes from being sleep deprived.
This music is silly and unabashedly so, but like all things humorous the laughter comes as a revelation of truth, and with it, beauty. Buckets of mariachi and haphazard bits of klezmer are strained through a filter that leaves only the barest bones of structure; some of the players build upon it, while others work to break it down. Hawaiian steel guitar and melodica impart exotic tropical flavors while old boards quietly groan in the background.
The band move all over a musical world map, taking me into territory I wasn’t familiar with as they traversed slow to swinging passages. By the end I had thrown out the travel guide I was using and navigated my way by instinct, much as they seemed to be doing. Their sense of direction was as finely honed as their musicianship. Even when I was disoriented by the slapdash arrangements, or overwhelmed by the pervading sense of mania, I never got lost.
“Distracted by the Moon” is a carefree ramble halfway through the album, and the only song with lyrics. They take on the same featherbrained quality of the music. “I’m mistaken for a fool/when I fall down from tripping on my shoes.” I can sympathize. Sirens wail in the background, and some of the instruments are purposefully out of key, but only just so, leaving me enough room to feel disconcerted, but not uncomfortable, as I stumble down the streets with the singer, my eyes glued to the glowing orb hanging there.
There are a few familiar landmarks and guideposts moving through the songs. “La Cucaracha” is one of them. In the hands of Blah Blah 666 it sounds as if the insect has been sprayed with an unhealthy dose of RAID. Dancing frantically, it is about to die. I can hear its legs starting to twitch. Spraying roaches with chemicals has never been more fun.
When the belly hurts, it is hard to breathe, and you start to cry because the laughter has been hitting hard, I know it is time to go to bed. So does this band. The music would easily grate on my nerves if left to run the whole possible 80 minute course of a CD, but at 41 minutes of rollicking fun they know when to stop.