James Blood Ulmer
Ulmer's music has always been an acquired taste, and he's never seemed that interested in others acquiring it. Unlike most blues-based players, who frequently claim to be taking tremendous musical risks even as they succumb to the seductions and stereotypes of the genre, Ulmer has built his career on the decision to allow his instrumental prowess to distend and reshape his compositions no matter how inaccessible the performances become as a result. Thus, it would be a simple matter for those of us familiar with Ulmer's experiments in harmelodics to overstate just how easy it is to listen to Blues Preacher; no one is going to mistake this disc for B.B. King. Nonetheless, Ulmer and a cadre of spectacular sidemen (guitarist Ronald Drayton, bassist Mark E. Peterson and drummer Aubrey Dayle) manage to retain their creativity even as they stay within the boundaries of the blues form. In addition, the band's leader vocalizes on the majority of the tracks, turning his gruff tone loose on lyrics that complement the various pieces in spite of a sometimes astounding verbal simplicity (for instance, "Who Let the Cat Out of the Bag?" features, by my count, 42 repetitions of the tune's title). As passionate as it is rough, Blues Preacher delivers a sermon that will keep your demons satisfied.--Michael Roberts
From Monday to Sunday
In all fairness, this solo outing by Nick Heyward is a notable improvement over his previous efforts with the other insipid, new-wave goofs in Haircut 100. For one thing, Heyward can actually sing now, which in itself should come as a relief to all of us who endured his torturous honk of a voice the first time around. For another, the bright-eyed little pixie who penned "Love Plus One" has come into his own as a songwriter. Sunday numbers such as "Kite" and "Mr. Plain" sport sensibilities similar to those exuded by XTC and Tears For Fears, and "January Man," a springy acoustic ditty about spurned love, even manages to rock out in a cute, simpering sort of way. Unfortunately, when Heyward is bleating out smarmy sentiments such as "Just ordinary people/In ordinary life/Taking ordinary lovers/Turning rain into sunshine" ("Ordinary People"), his stylish progressions don't carry much weight. Rather, they get lost among the other forty million or so acts who specialize in this sort of slick, meaningless schlock-pop. In grade school, Heyward would have received an "E" for effort. Here, he still gets a big thumbs down.--Brad Jones
The Riverside Reunion Band
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The musicians in the Riverside Reunion Band are stellar: cornetist Nat Adderley, drummer Tootie Heath, pianist Barry Harris, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, bassist Ron Carter and vibist Buddy Montgomery--all instrumentalists whose glory days occurred while they were signed to the Riverside label. As you might expect, such a grand lineup of proven players doesn't do anything wrong. But this otherwise very pleasant collection falters because of the dearth of surprises. Mostly Monk, a tribute to Monk, Wes Montgomery and Cannonball Adderley, is good old music played by good old guys in a good old way. It's interpretive nostalgia: very professional, but very predictable.--Linda Gruno
Too High to Die
While the gushy salutes from Kurt Cobain and Dave Pirner that decorate the cover of this disc are no doubt genuine, they wouldn't have been made had all of this band's oeuvre sounded like its extremely erratic last several albums. So praise be that the Kirkwood brothers have decided to stop pretending they're the reincarnation of Black Oak Arkansas and returned to their strong suit--the construction of intricate, intriguingly spare musical frames for lyrics that seem to have been written under the influence of 120-degree temperatures and a heaping helping of peyote. "Never to Be Found," for instance, does everything this band does well: It sports linguistic surrealism ("With a tip of the hat we would exit here/Off you go with a pie on your face"), an insinuating arrangement and a droning melody that recalls the Grateful Dead without sounding remotely like it. The Puppets' long strange trip begins again.--Roberts