There aren’t any lyrics on Oh No Oh Wow, the latest album from alt-jazz outfit Michael Bellar and The As-Is Ensemble. Some of the only words the listener hears are before the first track begins. “We could go on for hours,” somebody boasts as the group kicks into the title track, and I tend believe them. The ten song album comes almost to an hour and features five tracks of six minutes or more. These guys are willing to play.
The problem is that Bellar’s group too often sounds like pleasant background music, the inoffensive jams of a good coffee shop house band. This brand of blues rock sounds like a plugged in version of The Bad Plus, but lacking any of the exploration that usually accompanies those with jazz sensibilities (I doubt you’ll catch Bellar and company doing a rendering of Rite of Spring any time soon). At times the album feels like an extension of the jam section from Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” with a fedora on top.
Most of Oh No Oh Wow seems so scripted, and often so tame, that there’s never a chance for these guys to fully realize their gifts. I believe these guys have chops, I’d just like to see them on display. But Bellar and the Ensemble seem all too content to be a hollow facsimile of the influences they exhibit. “Biscuit Baby” has the clear plagality of a gospel offering and should have an intriguing buildup. However, the never-changing dynamics of the organ don’t allow for a full tension-and-release moment. “Three Little Birds” manages to quote Bob Marley in an excruciatingly lame fashion. Even when Bellar uses a grand piano, such as on “Little Mike D’s a Big Boy Now,” the thing is just banged-upon within an inch of its life.
If you listen to Oh No Oh Wow it’ll be hard to find anything overtly wrong about it. But perhaps that is the albums biggest flaw. With very few chances taken, the potential of this group is declawed, banished to the smooth equilibrium of plainness. Who knew “as-is” could be such a damning descriptor.
MP3: Michael Bellar And The As-Is Ensemble “Little Mike D’s a Big Boy Now”