Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934
Now here's a guy plenty of contemporary listeners have misinterpreted. The current generation thinks of Armstrong mainly as the grinning, big-eyed, lovable sort whose gravelly crooning of sentimental ditties such as "What a Wonderful World" fills boomers with misty-eyed delight. But underneath his pliant, affable surface beat the heart of a revolutionary. During the eleven years surveyed over the course of the four CDs in this boxed set, Armstrong almost single-handedly created the language of modern jazz. "Chimes Blues," the first track here (credited to King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which counted young Louis as a member), is in most ways a traditional New Orleans number--raucous, ragged, intoxicating. Still, Armstrong, in his first recorded solo, can be heard pushing at the constraints of the form; the moment when his trumpet briefly bursts free of the melody offers an indication of things to come. By the time he founded his own band (dubbed Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five), he was brimming with new ideas that allowed his playing to take flight, setting the stage for be-bop, free jazz and virtually every other important jazz development of this century. But this music isn't important simply from a historical perspective: It's also thoroughly entertaining. Because of the primitive recording techniques prevalent during this period, many of the early tracks on disc one sound tinny and rinky-dink, but by the second platter, Armstrong's work simply overwhelms questions of production quality. There is no shortage of Armstrong vocals here, and they're pleasant enough (and influential in their way--"Heebie Jeebies," from 1926, was among the first hits to feature scat singing). But it's the trumpet playing that truly shines: 1927's "Potato Head Blues," performed by Armstrong and His Hot Seven, is about as beautiful as American music gets. Many of the songs here may sound like antiques, but they actually represent a snapshot of an art form being born. And what a gorgeous baby it is.--Michael Roberts
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File Under: Easy Listening
Whether punk icon Bob Mould is on Prozac, getting older or simply enjoying the pop songs he now pens is anybody's guess. Only a fool would refute his ability to write hooks that measure up with Stipe's and Westerberg's. Thing is, he chose a path less traveled throughout the Eighties, and this new jive, even if it sells, will leave snobs pining for the discord, dissonance and clear-eyed confusion that marked Mould's Husker Du material. These attributes are largely absent from Sugar, which is built on David Barbe's intensely driven bass playing, Malcolm Travis's strong drumming and a rosy, post-Cold War aesthetic. I take the album's title to be a middle finger aimed at someone like yours truly, but the irony that implies doesn't add depth to this complicated artist's simplified offerings. Mould's pop streak, initially held at bay by his competitive relationship with Husker drummer/singer Grant Hart, now flies high on the friendly FM skies. Despite the easing of his musical mania, however, a link remains between 1983's "Newest Industry," 1989's "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton," 1992's "Slick" and the new "Explode and Make Up": the original, abundant talent that is his to manipulate.--Jason Horwitch
I Love Everybody
As if to ensure that his latest wouldn't become a smash because of his many tabloid-TV appearances on the arm of Julia Sleeping With the Enemy Roberts (no relation), Lovett has packed I Love Everybody with perhaps his least commercial work ever. Given his persnickety insistence upon genre-straddling throughout his career, that's an impressive accomplishment right there. But Lovett gets extra marks for pared-down, weirdo arrangements (there's more cello here than on your average Turtle Island String Quartet album) and a preference for portraying characters whose most notable quality is unlikability. The ghost of Randy Newman hovers over the opener, "Skinny Legs," in which Lovett allows his protagonist to gripe about "that Jap girl [who] dumped my ass." Likewise, a Newmanesque fixation on weighty matters pops up in "Fat Babies" and "The Fat Girl," while "Creeps Like Me" finds Lovett inhabiting a man who keeps his deceased uncle in a closet. Inquiring minds will find a few numbers to whet their appetites; "They Don't Like Me," for example, deals with a fellow who suspects that his in-laws think he's second-rate. Still, I Love Everybody is notable mainly because Lovett's grasp of irony is keener than any other songwriter on the current pop-music scene. Why else would he allow Julia to add background vocals on one track, then mix her down so low that she's practically inaudible?--Roberts