Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

James Blood Ulmer [extended]

  • Tales of Captain Black [Artists House, 1979] A-
  • Are You Glad to Be in America? [Artists House, 1981] B+
  • Free Lancing [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Black Rock [Columbia, 1982] A-
  • Odyssey [Columbia, 1983] A
  • Part Time [Rough Trade, 1984] B+
  • Live at the Caravan of Dreams [Caravan of Dreams, 1986] B+
  • America -- Do You Remember the Love? [Blue Note, 1987] B-
  • Blues Preacher [DIW/Columbia, 1994] Neither
  • Live [In+Out, 1994] B+
  • Blues Allnight [In + Out, 1996] Neither
  • Reunion [Knitting Factory, 1998] A-
  • Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions [Label M, 2001] A-
  • No Escape From the Blues [Hyena, 2003] A-
  • Back in Time [Pi, 2005] A-
  • Birthright [Hyena, 2005] Dud
  • Bad Blood in the City [Hyena, 2007] **

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

James Blood: Tales of Captain Black [Artists House, 1979]
This isn't the great Blood Ulmer record I've been waiting for. How can it be when the saxophone player is Ornette Coleman, who makes everything he plays his own? And how can it be when the drummer is Denardo Coleman, who can't follow (let alone drive) Blood in free time or on the one? But it does offer the densest guitar improvisations anyone has put on record since Hendrix, and over catchy themes, too. And it does offer Ornette Coleman. A-

Are You Glad to Be in America? [Artists House, 1981]
After a year of fix-it-in-the-mix, the gutsier audio of this long-awaited U.S. version just doesn't transform the harmolodic guitarmaster's Rough Trade debut into a sow's ear. It's still too stiff, too composed, too contained, not (primarily) because the sound is too thin, but because at a mean 4:20 the tracks are too damn short. The compositions are so brilliant they never relax or rock out, and Olu Dara and Oliver Lake get in David Murray's way. Hemmed in by crossfire, the sextet never finds room to wail with the ecstatic power of the classic Tin Palace quartet, which always did justice to what Ulmer loves about his three favorite local rock bands--not just the arrant Colemanism of the Contortions, but the surprising harsh angularity of the Voidoids and the climactic dynamics of the Feelies. Though they implode with more brains and soul than any fusion mucksters, they never bust loose. Which is half the concept, right? B+

Free Lancing [Columbia, 1981]
Ulmer's conception is so audacious, so singular, that he can't cut a bad record--his most pro forma moments would make you sit up and notice ordinary jazz-rock. But despite his uncanny one-take double-track drone and the polyrhythmic facility of Amin Ali and Calvin Weston, I find the trio format thin here, and the three lyrics are trivial compared to "Are You Glad to Be in America?" and "Jazz Is the Teacher." Recommended to unbelievers and George Clinton: the hard, horny funk of "High Time." B+

Black Rock [Columbia, 1982]
You can tell this Next Hendrix stuff is getting serious when Ulmer, always more an improviser/composer than a singer/songwriter, makes like a romantic heavy and musical philosophizer. Yet despite his grizzled visage and mouthful of marbles, he's getting away with it. As with Hendrix, his singing and thinking both seem crude at first, as do the simplified bottom of Calvin Weston and Amin Ali. But in the end the force of the conception, and of the sound itself, turn all doubts around. Ulmer's pixilated leads are more nerve-wracking than Jimi's wail, and I still await the transcendent synthesis his earliest jazz-funk gigs promised. But this is my idea of Raw Power 82. A-

Odyssey [Columbia, 1983]
I always figured great Blood would sound like the climactic "Swing and Things"--pure virtuosic rave-up, Mahavishnu with soul and ideas. But of course, great Blood ended up sounding like nothing I could have predicted. With a new band comprising drummer Warren Benbow and violinist Charles Burnham--that's right, funk fans, no bass, though with Ulmer's strong fingers you can't always tell--he's created an ur-American synthesis that takes in jazz, rock, Delta blues (suddenly his mush-mouthed vocals kick home, especially on the heart-torn "Please Tell Her"), and even country music (though Burnham's fiddle also has a Middle Eastern effect). I don't mean he goes from one to the other, either--most of the time, you'd be hard-pressed to pin just one style on any of this painfully beautiful stuff. Great Blood, that's all. A

Part Time [Rough Trade, 1984]
Cut at Montreux around the time of Odyssey, Ulmer's strongest LP, this repeats four titles and is close to his weakest. The live recording dulls his sonic concept, with only "Swing and Things," compacted into 3:27, providing compensation. Which isn't to say he doesn't still outrock Pat Metheny, or that "Encore," the most striking of the three new tunes, shouldn't get an encore. B+

Live at the Caravan of Dreams [Caravan of Dreams, 1986]
Decked out like a rent-a-pasha on the colorized cover, bellowing/muttering lyrics he might as well be making up on the spot ("Gonna get me a cow and dick around"?--nah, can't be), Blood's too wild and woolly for his own good here. But if wild and woolly is the price of live and well, his admirers should be happy to pay up. B+

America -- Do You Remember the Love? [Blue Note, 1987]
One danger of putting Bill Laswell in the studio with the likes of Blood is his respect for the avant-garde. From Nona Hendryx or Motorhead or even Sly and Robbie he'll brook no bullshit, but give him a committed innovator and he can turn into a humble servant of the muse, as in his worthy, inconsequential Celluloid LPs for Daniel Ponce, Billy Bang, etc. From Sonny Sharrock he got a definitive record that way; from Blood he gets a dud. The digital neatness may be Blue Note's fault, and the schematic instrumentals typify Laswell's compulsion to contain chaos. But the thinness of the guitar itself sounds like Blood's misplaced idea of a Wes Montgomery move. And I guarantee you Laswell didn't think any of the three vocal tracks were radio fare, no matter who he hired to sing backup. B-

Blues Preacher [DIW/Columbia, 1994] Neither

The James "Blood" Ulmer Blues Experience: Live [In+Out, 1994]
The advantage of this live album over Ulmer's studio blues isn't choice material but excess guitar. He's a more proficient (jazz) composer than (r&b) songwriter and a more exciting player than either. His funky rhythm section has slipped into blues-rock, and that he was one of the first jazzmen to understand why Hendrix treated his axe as a noisemaker doesn't mean he commands Hendrix's palette--although he's gotten louder with the years, he still reverts to single-string lines. But with Sonny Sharrock dead, he smokes the competition. Guitar diehards should get hip to this wild, solid cross-section of a seminal genre buster. B+

The James "Blood" Ulmer Blues Experience: Blues Allnight [In + Out, 1996] Neither

Odyssey the Band: Reunion [Knitting Factory, 1998]
In which James Blood Ulmer's greatest album is mined for the originality of its band concept, with Charlie Burnham the strong alternate lead the leader needs. Intimations of hoedown notwithstanding, "fiddler" doesn't capture Burnham any better than "violinist"--gypsy riffs bent by blues intonation, blues drones textured with saxophone growl. As for that lowdown meld of giro scrape, jew's-harp thwong, and two balloons rubbing together, I assume it's Blood, who is also the straightforward vocalist and melodist on a record that starts atmospheric, turns songful, and ropes you in with a sound either way. A-

Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions [Label M, 2001]
Ulmer's singing has always been Delta, but on the blues album of his life Vernon Reid hooks him up with Willie Dixon, and the three unmatched neoprimitivists make roughslick music together. Not all the best tracks are Dixon songs: here's to old-time DJ Holmes Daylie's "Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal," John Lee Hooker's whistled "Dimples," the eight-minute "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)" turbocharging over the dull memory of the nine-minute "Walking Blues." And if Dixon ever heard anything like the harmolodics Ulmer lays on "Little Red Rooster" and "I Love the Life I Live," Pete Cosey was God. A-

No Escape From the Blues [Hyena, 2003]
Vernon Reid's first bid to turn Ulmer into the ranking 21st-century bluesman mined Memphis and claimed classics. Phase two knows New York and articulates arcana. Whether it's Reid's banjo cakewalking away with the obscure "Goin' to New York" or the tap solo and Olu Dara cameo that break up the famed "Bright Lights, Big City," production and selection strive to outdo each other, and not just on Jimmy Reed songs. Also, Ulmer takes some hellacious solos. That's how he got here. A-

Odyssey the Band: Back in Time [Pi, 2005]
The 1983 classic that gave this Blood Ulmer trio its name has diminished slightly with the years, in part because the glorious jazz-rock future it portended never came to pass. Two decades on, Ulmer is the artiest of all Delta blues imitators, Charles Burnham a fiddler for hire, and Warren Benbow a pensive drummer even on the fast ones. So the beauties of their middle-aged reunion are atmospheric rather than fiery. A-

Birthright [Hyena, 2005] Dud

Bad Blood in the City [Hyena, 2007]
Silty with guitar, Blood and Vernon's levees-broke album would be for naught without his ever grittier voice ("Dead Presidents," "Katrina"). **