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July/August 2005

James "Blood" Ulmer
Birthright
Hyena

Put aside for a moment the haunted and hypnotizing lyrics delivered from a set of ragged and raw vocal cords on Birthright, James "Blood" Ulmer's first ever solo album. Just listen to the guitar: a splintered, knotty mess of detuned strings and unfettered twang that only Ulmer knows how to untangle. His blues may often follow some semblance of a standard 12-bar form, but Ulmer abstracts the formula from plain view, ambling along rickety rhythms in "I Ain't Superstitious," playing with a stream-of-consciousness freedom in "White Man's Jail" and shooting off non sequitur spasms of melody in the ragalike instrumental "Love Dance Rag."

Ulmer's is the definition of a singular style, and when he puts that equally unique voice atop these folk-blues-indebted vignettes of pain and recovery, sin and redemption, it's overwhelming in its realism. Like Buddy Guy did in 2001 with a similarly spare back-to-basics album called Sweet Tea, Ulmer carries us back to a time before blues had a place in showbiz. But where Guy stood in front of a backing band, Ulmer goes it alone, reminding us of just how solitary the blues can and should feel.

Originally published in July/August 2005
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