The Art of Not

Yesterday’s post featured a new album by Jim Blaha which is a side project from his regular work with one of the most popular bands in the Twin Cities, the Blind Shake. His new Jim and the French Vanilla album is in stores today, and he is working on putting together a band to perform the new songs live. Also available this week is The Art of Not, a first solo project by Mike Blaha (billed as Blaha on the jacket). It’s been a dream week for us as huge Blind Shake fans, because the two solo albums really offer a new look into two of our favorite local musicians.

The “eye-catching” artwork by his brother on the jacket offers a hint to the humor inside, and to Blaha’s ability to balance affirmation with self-depreciation. In its own way, The Art of Not is an extension of “Reasonable World,” the catchy anthem at the core of the Blind Shake’s Celebrate Your Worth which extolls “giant girls [and] lazy boys” to “just figure it out.” It’s also a high-wire act where Blaha impresses us with his abilities and leaves us thinking about what he had to say.

Blaha’s delivers The Art of Not one-man-band style in the tradition of “Superstition,” overdubbing himself on guitar, bass and drums in Neil Weir’s venerated Blue Bell Knoll studio. Its rock and roll stripped to its essentials, but hardly lo-fi garage rock. In fact, there’s even an instrumental at the end of each side which recall the awesome (and lushly produced) album the Blind Shake made with Swami John Reis. The sound of The Art of Not perfectly fits the mood of Mike Blaha’s new songs.

Some of the songs, such as “Lemonade” heard here, move along at the old man’s pace of sixty-five beats-per-minute, almost unheard of on a Blind Shake album. The result is a heightened focus on the clean melodies and clever lines which is sometimes lost in the manic pace of Blaha’s main gig. In one of the catchiest moments on the album Blaha falls in love with loneliness (“Loneliness, I Love You”) with the rollicking humor of Camper van Beethoven.

Other songs are more sardonic, especially “Good Girls,” which opens with a contrast of good girls and bad, but quickly widens its scope:

Good world, I always thought you were a sad world
Sad world, you really opened my eyes

The two different impulses in so many of Blaha’s songs — self-reliance against self-depreciation — are most stark in a song which doesn’t stand out on a first listen but really sinks into a listener’s ears and thoughts. We hope “Frog & Toad” is a reference to the endlessly endearing Arnold Lobel stories, but it may just be another example of how we here at Hymies enterprises misinterpret songs. The song seems to recognize the two different personalities: the cautious, anxious toad and the confident and courageous frog, who are (in the title of one of Lobel’s stories) friends.

Just a song earlier Blaha encourages us to “take a lemon and throw it at life,” and he’s done a hell of a job of that with this album. Like the new Jim and the French Vanilla album featured yesterday, it seems like The Art of Not isn’t as high on the local music radar as a Blind Shake album, and instead stands on its own. The album is undeniably a testament to Blaha’s musical talents, but also his insight. He’s pretty hard on himself throughout, but also in “Lemonade” he sings:

You’re not so perfect, and I guess that I’m not so bad.

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