Review: Stephen Ulrich’s NPR Instrumentals Grab the Spotlight on ‘Music for This American Life’

Stephen Ulrich
Music for This American Life
(Barbes Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Sounds to listen to NPR by?

That may be how these ten instrumentals were birthed. But removed from their supporting format enhancing This American Life’s radio show provides them with a fresh lease on life.

Guitarist/composer Stephen Ulrich, best known as the frontman for NYC artsy crime noir jazzers Big Lazy, was commissioned to compose music to accompany This American Life, the popular weekly NPR program. But these often poignant, atmospheric, and oddly named pieces such as “Surprise, Arizona” were too well crafted to be relegated as background for radio shows… then forgotten. Ten are spotlighted on this short, minimalist but memorable compilation.

Less aggressive and cinematic than his work with Big Lazy, the tracks nonetheless are clearly the work of the same guy. Producer/drummer Dean Sharenow keeps the groove lean and trimmed down, giving Ulrich’s sleek, restrained guitar the focus for this easy-going compilation. Ulrich loves his reverb, which provides a shimmery, rain-swept, retro vibe that’s wonderfully evocative. Some like the slippery “Rinse Cycle” feel like what they were written to be;ie sparse background soundtracks to accompany something else. But generally, titles such as “If and When” capture a light, jazzy elegance and delicate touch encouraging listeners to let their minds provide the graphics.

The lack of vocals along with just the hint of Thomas Bartlett’s keyboards (particularly effective in the haunting “Housebroken”), and bass (Ulrich plays that too) highlights the guitarist’s subtle solos that stay bubbling under even as they are the disc’s featured aspect.

Change-ups like the chugging percussion of the lovely “Unpretty” and the clip-clop underpinning “Handheld” and its nod to experimental tendencies keep things from sounding too similar. Largely absent is the creepy surf style Ulrich used so successfully in Big Lazy’s tougher, but still wordless, approach.

Those whose appetites are whetted to hear more are in luck. All the Big Lazy albums, released from 2000-2019 initially on the obscure indie label Tasankee, have now been reissued. They capture the mood of Ulrich’s compositional and atmospheric talents, hinted at and accurately described by another writer as “music to drive to jail to.” These tunes aren’t as spirited but they are just as redolent, albeit in a rather laid-back fashion.

Press play and generate your own visuals.            

Photo courtesy Barbés Records

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