Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Warren Benbow on drums, and Charlie Burnham on electric violin constitute the trio who made the most renowned album of Ulmer's early-'80s heyday, the now reissued Odyssey. Now they're Odyssey the Band, whose Reunion (Knitting Factory Works) makes clear how absolutely unique their sound always was. Defining that sound, although he's neither songwriter nor star, is Burnham, who was crucial in getting the three back together. Suggesting everything from gypsy fiddle to the one-stringed instrument of West Africa, it's Burnham who turns avant-garde jazz into harmolodic hoedown, as weirdly familiar as the excursions of Ulmer's old mentor, Ornette Coleman. Ulmer's simple tunes, straightfroward declarations of love, and rock-inflected chops are essential. But the band takes his gifts to an American place he couldn't find without them.

After 17 years, the veteran alternative band Sonic Youth seem permanently forbidding to some, tediously familiar to others. Yet though their 11th album, A Thousand Leaves (DGC), bears the sonic imprint of their unique tunings and does rock out at times, it's a welcoming change--a fulfilled but never complacent meditation on the raveups of their early days filtered through the tunecraft of their early-'90s albums and the ambient experiments of the techno generation.

"I've been with lots of boys and they've screwed me up," declares Sarge's Elizabeth Elmore on the opening track of The Glass Intact (Mud). Whereupon she proceeds to lay out a few of the many varieties of screwed-up experience--each one distinctly individual, each one strangely recognizable. Guys who can't stand it when real girls do this might try practicing to these rockin', well-crafted tunes. It'll be easy--just read along.

Playboy, May 1998

Apr. 1998 June 1998