Film composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been on some kind of roll lately. He scored the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Art and Craft with characteristically vivid noir unease. His one-off album with his cinematic instrumental project Ulrich Ziegler, with ex-Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler, was rated best album of 2012 here. Most recently, Ulrich has regrouped his legendary noir instrumental trio Big Lazy, who set the bar as far as menacing reverbtone guitar cinematics are concerned. The title of their latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle – streaming at Spotify – is a creepy deep-Brooklyn reference, and it’s apt. Pound for pound, it’s the best album of 2014.
Some backstory: the group broke up in 2007. Meanwhile, Ulrich continued on with a semi-rotating cast of characters including drummer Yuval Lion, who ended up sticking around for this project along with prominently ubiquitous bassist Andrew Hall, who’s never played with more stygian intensity than he does here. The new album covers all the desolate, shadowy, knifes-edge territory that previous incarnations of the band have evoked since their iconic 1996 debut, Amnesia, released under the name Lazy Boy (the reason for the name change is a sick and hilarious indictment of American corporate fascism). And this unit turns out to be the best version of the band, ever, surpassing even the slinky menace of Ulrich’s original trio with Paul Dugan on bass and Willie Martinez on drums.
The opening track, Minor Problem, is a a twisted tango, Ulrich tracing a sleaze-infested trail with his guitar and then his lapsteel over a misterioso clatter from Lion as Hall holds it all together. The slowly undulating Unswerving blends Charlie Giordano’s accordion into Ulrich’s spaciously eerie chromatics for a tinge of Peter Lorre-era musette. The Low Way opens as a jauntily swinging, Bill Frisell-esque highway theme, but Ulrich wastes no time edging it toward the shadows: it’s sort of the reverse image of Junction City, the one relatively easygoing track on the band’s debut.
Human Sacrifice makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme – with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, it’s one of the most suspenseful tracks here, and a real showstopper live. Black Sheep brings back the pastoral flavor with a muted, psychedelic sarcasm – Lion’s snorting barnyard flurries on the drums are irresistibly funny. Avenue X – another Brooklyn reference and a popular title in the horror surf demimonde – revisits the murky, dubby depths that Ulrich explored for awhile about ten years ago, with a snide, faux-blithe trumpet cameo from Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein.
Night Must Fall motors along on an ominously sketchy ghoulabilly shuffle groove in the same vein as classic late 90s Big Lazy tracks like Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, hitting a similarly explosive, jagged peak. The single best cut here is the funereal waltz Swampesque, Lion and Hall shadowing Ulrich’s alternately lingering and icepicking lines. Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin pairs crime-scene guitar with guest Peter Hess’s brooding baritone sax over an almost imperceptibly shapeshifting groove.
The album’s title track is also its funniest, a ba-BUMP stripper theme that the band, and Bernstein again, fire poison darts at with considerable relish. Whereabouts takes a balmy jazz ballad deep into Twin Peaks territory; the album winds up with a bonus track, Lunch Lady, a narrative that turns on a dime from bouncy and bluesy to murderous. Throughout the album, Ulrich and the rhythm section pepper the shadowy cinematics with bits of black humor and the occasional devious quote – Hendrix, the Mission Impossible theme and allusions to Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks, a well that Ulrich has drawn deeply from over the years. Obviously, picking this album over similarly brilliant if stylistically unrelated releases by Jennifer Niceley, Robin Aigner, Paul Wallfisch’s Ministry of Wolves and Arborea (all of whom you may see on this page in the near future, hint hint) is completely subjective. It’s like choosing Sergeant Pepper over Are You Experienced in 1967, or Public Enemy over Sonic Youth in 1987. If you buy the idea that somebody has to make that call, this album makes it a no-brainer.