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Blood Bath

By David King

Dax Riggs

We Sing of Only Love or blood (fat possum)

Dax Riggs is a man obsessed by death. And it is a beautiful obsession.

Listen to Riggs without foreknowledge and you might think you were hearing the lamentations of an ancient, grizzled bluesman coming to terms with his last few years. But Riggs is an angelic manchild who has lived a musical life longer than most other 34-year-old men. Riggs, the New Orleans-based singer who first gained national acclaim with soulful death-metalers Acid Bath and more recently with the bayou folk-blues of Deadboy and the Elephantmen, has a tendency not to stay in one place for very long.

Deadboy and the Elephantmen earned a four-star review in Rolling Stone for the White Stripes-ish We Are Night Sky, an album recorded by only Riggs and drummer Tess Burnette. However, Deadboy began as a five-piece goth-swamp band full of keys and strings that musically captured the essence of Riggs’ soul-piercingly mournful croon. So, the final boy-girl incarnation of Deadboy was cute, and its sparse musical trappings did not hamper Riggs as a lead singer, but anyone who was familiar with Deadboy knew something was missing.

Riggs could easily have milked the praise thrown on him by the mainstream press, but instead he dropped the Deadboy moniker and got the original group who made up Deadboy back together. It’s all very confusing, but the result is not: We Sing of Only Love or Blood is, through all 16 brief tracks, simply beautiful. Riggs is such a powerful singer, his lyrics so simple and pure, his obsession with death so fascinating, that he could record an album of nothing but his vocals and I might listen to it. Fortunately, Riggs is backed by musicians capable of lifting his voice with their appropriately bluesy guitar work, warm keys and pitch-a-fit drumming. You would be hard-pressed to find a song on the album that is not simultaneously devastating and affecting.

From glam-rave ups through straightforward blues to goth-pop and even rollicking punk, We Sing of Only Love or Blood is the best representation of Riggs’ influences to date, and establishes him as one of his generation’s most masterful rock singers. We Sing of Only Love or Blood is a bayou blues Nevermind.

—David King

James “Blood” Ulmer

Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions (Hyena)

With assistance from producer, acolyte and fellow guitar firebrand Vernon Reid, singer-guitarist James ‘Blood’ Ulmer has spent most of the last decade revisiting his blues roots, and in the process has garnered many of the mainstream accolades (Grammy nominations, Downbeat poll wins) that his early Ornette Coleman-inspired funk-jazz records held at bay. Not that Ulmer is ever going to do anything totally by the book: His latest blues bulletin is no good-time jamboree, but a spirited (and spiritual) rejoinder to Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response to the disaster. Recorded in New Orleans about a year after Katrina overran the levees, the disc features Ulmer and his tour-tightened six-piece band running through originals like “Survivors of the Hurricane,” where he fingers bureaucratic “Johnny come lately” types, “call[ing] themselves heroes/For doing their jobs.” The mood here is mournful but never morose. On “Katrina,” Ulmer wails that nature is not to blame, instead giving the strident suggestion, “Talk to the president!”

Interspersed throughout are classic blues songs handpicked by Reid for the occasion, and musically, this is where the band get to dig deepest into what George Clinton once called that “way-back yonder funk.” Junior Kimbrough’s “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” comes up from the ground like a swamp wraith, Ulmer singing with a bad case of soul congestion; Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime” probably is the album’s shining moment, an ass-shaker that has “steamy roadhouse” written all over it, taking to heart the quintessential blues maxim that we’re going to have to make good times out of the hard times too. Along with Ulmer’s epochal 2005 Birthright album, Bad Blood in the City is quintessential American music for the ages, all protest, blues and fury.

—Mike Hotter

Nina Nastasia & Jim White

You Follow Me (Fatcat)

This set of 10 songs in a duo setting has all of the exuberant sense of discovery associated with jazz pairings, and none of the rote mannerisms too often found in folk-volume guitar-based music. Nina Nastasia’s voice and guitar already have a liquidity that allows her melodic sensibility to swoop around and through the strumming and picking. Her guitar offers up by turns rhythmically muscular chords and quietly shimmering note-by-note articulations. Drummer Jim White (of Dirty Three) is less an additive to these songs than an essential component. He moves easily between foundation work and giddy rooftop filigree. On “Odd Said the Doe,” his swirling rolls add an emotional bearing, the song spilling out of itself, and throughout he inhabits the core of the song like a second singer. Nastasia and White are beholden to nothing other than their own artistic inclinations, and these songs straddle genres, discarding labels to be defined only by the 31 minutes they traverse.

—David Greenberger


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