What remains of the poetry revival is Mouth Almighty, a label formed by Bob Holman and Bill Adler, ringleaders of the original poetry slam scene in downtown New York. Mouth Almighty's second release, Flippin' the Script, captures the best moments from the spirited slams that brought together rappers and poets between 1993 and 1995. Seventeen different performers, from the well-known (poet/playwright Sekou Sundiata, cultural critic Greg Tate, UMCs rapper Kool Kim) to the less-known (Dasez, 17, High Priest) take turns at the mike, with Holman hosting.

As with most of what passes for spoken poetry, the cuts on Flippin' the Script are better classified as monologues or performance art, since most are unstructured, proselike, and need to be experienced live to really be appreciated. Some are a cappella raps, some free-form stories, some little more than mouth sounds. As a whole, though, Flippin' the Script is among the better spoken-word records. Most memorable: Tish Benson's hilarious poem and commentary "Processions" and a frantic bit from Sundiata's theater piece "The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop." But like other nonmusic albums (think comedy records), there's little reason to play this more than a handful of times. Literature is one thing on the page, but on record, it don't mean a thing if ain't got that swing.

-- Roni Sarig

Various Artists
Mean Old World: The Blues from 1940-1994
(Smithsonian)

It's a wacky game, but let's play it anyway: What one blues album would you take to that proverbial desert island? Robert Johnson's King of the Delta Blues Singers? Muddy Waters' old Best Of? Howlin' Wolf's Moanin' in the Moonlight? Something by Skip James? Fred McDowell? Albert Collins? Buddy Guy? Bessie Smith? Robert Cray? Stevie Ray Vaughan? The Blues Brothers? (Please, say it ain't so.) Let's say you pick a multidisc boxed set: Johnson's best-selling Columbia set or Muddy's MCA/Chess masterwork? The Complete Recordings of T-Bone Walker? As far as boxed collections go, candidates include the Smithsonian's Blues and MCA's Blues Classics. Consider, too, the new Mean Old World, with 79 songs by famous and not-so-famous worthies spread over four CDs.

The set has been praised to high heaven by the mainstream press, but is it really that good? Certainly album producer Larry Hoffman knows his stuff, and he's made his blues selections with all the painstaking care of a jeweler picking out the finest gems. Hoffman doesn't get hung up on whether a Billie Holiday or a Hot Lips Page more properly belongs in the jazz camp and he's alert to important rock and roll pioneers like Amos Milburn and Jackie Brenston. All the titans are here -- Muddy, Wolf, B.B. King, Magic Sam, on and on -- and so are a number of unsung heroes, from Jimmy McCracklin to Jimmy Johnson. Found herein are country and urban blues and rockin' R&B in all its sensuality and fine emotional detail, from 1940 (when set opener Memphis Minnie cut "Ma Rainey") to the mid-Nineties (exemplars Corey Harris, Billy Branch, Buddy Guy, and Tutu Jones). Eyebrows get raised at a couple of Hoffman's song choices and omissions, but a big compilation like this automatically invites nitpicking. The set's handsomely laid-out 89-page booklet gives welcome details about the songs, musicians, and oh yes, the state of the blues in the period covered.

Mean Old World doesn't have T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues" or Charles Brown's "Driftin' Blues" and a few more seminal numbers because they appeared on the earlier Smithsonian collection Blues. Okay, but something else isn't as easy to digest. The box steers way clear of some remarkable blues musicians because of their skin color. Hoffman apparently shares the Living Blues magazine's position that only African Americans are legitimate purveyors of the spare, dramatic music they created out of enslavement, segregation, and the black experience. Thanks but no thanks, says Hoffman, to Mose Allison; Charlie Musslewhite; Mike Bloomfield; Koerner, Glover & Ray, et al.

So is Mean Old World a desert island disc? A qualified yes. However, it is best suited for blues neophytes and semi-serious fans, for blues diehards probably own most of the material here on other CDs or LPs. Most likely, they would find this set a luxury they can live without, island or no.

-- Frank-John Hadley

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