Review: Stephen Ulrich – “Music from ‘This American Life'”

Stephen Ulrich’s Music from “This American Life”, a solo debut of sorts, takes the late-night, urban noir tendencies of the band Ulrich fronts, Big Lazy, and synthesizes all the coolness to grandiose heights. Its 10 jazz instrumental hot-takes are seemingly simple on the surface but dripping with depth, urgency and pathos; at its finest moments, the wondrous little set calls to mind Ulrich’s enveloping work on the HBO series Bored To Death, as well as the better outings of fellow jazz axeman Bill Frisell.

The Frisell note is an apt one. Frisell, like Ulrich, came from a rock band that mattered – John Zorn’s Naked City. While the hardcore propulsion of certain Naked City offerings (“Igneous Ejaculation,” anyone?) is far rougher around the edges than much of Big Lazy’s urban/urbane surf-swing, it led Frisell to an engaging solo career in contemporary jazz. LPs like The Intercontinentals continue to wow us, all these years later. Ulrich, who studied with jazz greats in his nascent years, has to be aware of the comparison. Music from “This American Life” takes a simple conceit – creating “buttons” of transition-ready scores and sound for an NPR program – and elevates it into high jazz art. Listen to the slinky guitar twang of “The Swell” or album-opener “Earthly” and you’ll see what we mean.

At times on the new LP, Ulrich is a bit of a literalist – and that works wonders when he gives himself the space to toy with a conceit. The guitar patterning and repetition on “Rinse Cycle,” for example, seems to mimic the load in your wash, and circles and undulates around listeners, almost to the point of dizziness. Ingenious! The wonderfully awkward “Handheld” mimics the uneven-ness of a coarse panning shot, appropriate to its title. Elsewhere, Ulrich is ever the storyteller. “If and When” is a road-side wanderer, a hitchhiker of a tune driven by fluid finger-picking (we’re guessing here) and a metronomic drum line. (Drummer Dean Sharenow, he of Kill Henry Sugar, shines throughout.) The faux-menace of “Unpretty” creates a wonderful sense of anxiety, building to the record’s finish. “Bookworm,” the album closer, is a pretty-as-a-pin jazz ballad, complete with some wonderfully supple chords on Ulrich’s guitar.

There are moments on the LP that have underpinnings of pop formulas; here, we’re thinking mostly of “Surprise, Arizona,” which is far from dusty and cinematic, and instead has perky high notes that tell an almost heart-wrenching little love story. “Housebroken” also hints at this, where palm-muted guitars and bass, and a snare shuffle meet Ulrich’s dripping guitar notes, all wet and soaked from massive doses of reverb.

Big Lazy is, was and always will be a beautiful thing. The band reached tremendous highs on 2014’s amazing Don’t Cross Myrtle and trio staples like “Skinless, Boneless” or “Tel Aviv Taxi,” both from earlier eras and incarnations of the lineup, remain brilliant examples of Ulrich’s skill as a composer. Music from “This American Life” channels some of that Big Lazy coolness, yes, some of that noir intensity. But it also is something separate, jazzier and more direct. Ulrich is making his case as a jazz guitarist in his own right and we’re all the better for it. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, March 11, 2023


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.