I must have listened to Birthright 100 times since I got it a couple weeks ago. There’s something really special about this album. Stripped down and laid bare before us, James Blood Ulmer has claimed the blues as his Birthright. I once read somewhere that he exemplifies “primordial blues” and I don’t think I could have summed it up any better than that. The entire disc is nothing but Ulmer and his guitar. There’s also a flute solo in there at one point, but I’ll get to that later.
The first cut off the album is “Take My Music Back to the Church” and that’s exactly what he does. He doesn’t just take his music to church, he builds the church for us with through his music, then the man delivers an amazingly direct and riveting sermon on the history of the blues, life, and lessons learned along the way.
I’m gonna take my music back to the church
Where the blues was misunderstood,
Some people think that it’s the song of the devil,
But it’s the soul of the man for sure.
Not only does Ulmer touch on the misperception of the blues as a tool of evil, but he deftly illustrates his personal battle with the guilty joy of playing his music. This inner struggle is revisited several more times on the album, but the “Take My Music” fires such a powerful first shot, you know he’s serious.
You only have to hear his bone-chilling wail to understand his pain. The cackle on “The Devil’s Got to Burn” is disturbing in that there’s a delicious sense of pleasure in Ulmer’s destruction of his demons. It’s uncomfortable, yet it’s also completely comforting because you realize that Ulmer’s not only faced his worst fears, he’s conquered them. His redemption is played out via the flute solo at the very end of the album. With the light and gentle notes from the flute, one can almost imagine the soft feathery wings of a dove caressing his battered soul. It’s his rebirth.
His journey from damnation to salvation is a wholly personal one – one that he shares with us, no matter how unsettling it may be. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe this album – personal and unsettling. But, it’s more than that. It’s also heart-wrenching, mournful, raw, bare bones, haunting, joyful, touching, thoughtful, and gripping. And easily recognizable. Who hasn’t faced down a daunting task without exposing the dark, underbelly (if you will) of their psyche? It’s not pretty, but it is cleansing. The results are also cause for celebration.
Celebration on this album comes not just in the form of the flute solo, but in his tribute to his grandfather, “Geechee Joe,” the delightful guitar at the end of “Where Do All The Girls Come From” and “Geetchee Joe” (and just about every song), and in the actual listening experience.
James Blood Ulmer’s jangly vibrato takes some getting used to, but once you’ve listened a few times, it’s simply impossible not to embrace it – especially on “All The Girls” and “Geechee Joe.” Throughout the majority of this songs, there’s a sweetness and longing that’s beautifully expressed. Perhaps it’s my soft girly heart that’s so easily swayed by this, but somehow, I don’t think so.
This isn’t your run of the mill blues by any means; it doesn’t have to be. And, really, what defines the blues? The human experience and soul are all that’s required for the blues. Birthright has all that and more.
James Blood Ulmer’s Blues Music Awards nomination for Acoustic Album of the Year is well deserved. Of all the nominations, Birthright leads the pack. Not content to merely showcase his ability to sing and play guitar, Ulmer offers up his heart and soul on a rough hewn platter – it’s an offer you can’t refuse.
John Owen also reviewed this album last year. Amazingly enough, I hadn’t read his review until after this was written. If you read his, you’ll note some similar impressions.