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Original Soundtrack
Louie Bluie
(Arhoolie)

With more and more prewar black and white string-band music hitting the reissue bins, from 1997's Anthology of American Folk Music to the Yazoo label's marvelous series of mountain-music collections, it's fitting that Louie Bluie has finally been restored to the racks. Originally issued in 1985 as the soundtrack to Terry Zwigoff's documentary of the same name (about the life and times of vocalist/mandolinist/fiddle-wiz Howard Armstrong), the music on Louie Bluie both preserves the still-underappreciated influence of African-American string-band music and argues its importance despite the decades of snubbery by blues and country purists.

Armstrong was born in 1909 in Dayton, Tennessee, and recorded in the early Thirties with Yank Rachell and as a member of the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, before moving to Chicago. By then he had formed a contentious if rewarding partnership with guitarist Ted Bogan and began gigging around the South Side area, playing jukes, taverns, and street corners. Before long, though, Armstrong moved to Detroit, living in an obscurity that was interrupted in the Seventies by a pair of albums for Flying Fish. Musically Armstrong was silent until filmmaker Zwigoff (director of the acclaimed 1994 documentary Crumb) found the artist and cajoled him into taking him on a biographical and musical tour of his life, with Bogan and assorted others along for the ride.

On film the results were alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, with Armstrong's fiery, often ornery sense of humor underpinning the tragedy of his less-than-successful career to date. The music, though, was shot through with a kind of passion that transcends celluloid and recording tape.

This CD reissue captures it all beautifully, from the thorny grain of Armstrong's worn but powerful voice to the dazzling mandolin runs of both Armstrong and, on the wailing "Vine Street Drag," Yank Rachell. The songs span the range of prewar jazz, gospel, and popular standards: There's a gloriously filthy "Darktown Strutter's Ball," followed by a piano-driven romp through "When He Calls I Will Answer." A steamrolling duet between Armstrong and Bogan on "New State Street Rag" is answered by an absolutely aching take of "Nothing In This Wide World for Me" that is as harrowing in its own way as anything in the canon of Robert Johnson or Hank Williams; even the hoary "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" sounds fresh here, with Armstrong's mandolin dancing nimbly around Bogan's guitar figures. Almost as spectacular is Armstrong's interpretation of "Barushka," a Polish standard. (Armstrong also offers his recollection of what Polish listeners back in the Thirties thought of this unorthodox cover.)

Even if you're among the fortunate few to own a copy of the original vinyl pressing of Louie Bluie (which does justice to R. Crumb's gorgeous cover art), you'll need this digital-age reissue for one of four bonus cuts: the Chocolate Drops' 1930 version of "Vine Street Rag." Like the other prewar material included on the original pressing, this song proves Armstrong has always deserved a tribute as lovely and loving as Louie Bluie. (Arhoolie, 10341 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, CA 94530)

-- John Floyd

John P. Strohm
Vestavia
(Flat Earth)

As a member of the Blake Babies, Lemonheads, Antenna, Velo-Deluxe, and Hello Strangers, John P. Strohm has jumped from pregrunge pop, punk-pop, psychedelic-shoegazer pop, and country-pop, abandoning each as quickly as he embraced it. But on his first record since moving to Alabama (and his first solo album), Strohm appears to have reconciled all of his divergent approaches while giving his individual interests a place at the table. Taking its title from a generic, Starbucks-Gap-Best Buy suburb of Birmingham, Vestavia is an honest set of catchy songs set against a backdrop of suburban anomie. Coproducer Ed Ackerson's penchant for sonic embellishment suits Strohm's restlessness.

Vestavia opens with "Wouldn't Want to Be Me," an organ-fueled, midtempo rocker that isn't that far removed from the Band-influenced work of Cracker or the Wallflowers. But instead of staid, middle-of-the-road rock, Strohm comes out swinging. "Do you hate this song?/'Cause if you do, we'll sing it all day long," he croons, on his way into a swaggering, percussive wah-wah guitar break. The bluesy strut of "Eva Braun" is undercut by a banjo, while the distorted, sliding barre-chords of "For a While" are twisted by a psychedelic bridge of sitar sounds and guitar loops. The power ballad "Sylvia's Gone" seems simple, but the tremoloed guitar and martial drums give way to heavy guitars and an earnest, sad-eyed hook. "Drive Thru," with its laid-back country-shuffle beat, keeps the big guitars of the chorus from overwhelming Strohm's longing for a simpler life-- realizing that he's not in love, but that he'll be happy as long as they keep the cable on.

Vestavia isn't the slacker record that "Drive Thru" suggests. It ambitiously updates the visions of John Mellencamp (like Strohm, a Bloomington, Indiana native) while referencing the lost dreams of Bruce Springsteen. Instead of the blue-collar dreams of those elders, Strohm's landscape is urban sprawl and Pottery Barns; soul-sucking stripmalls rather than factories or farm closings. It's records like this that make suburbia a little more tolerable.

--David Simutis

David Sylvian
Dead Bees on a Cake
(Virgin)

Like the late British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, it will take death for most critics to take notice of David Sylvian. An enigmatic composer with a devoted cult following, Sylvian emerged in the late Seventies as the brains behind the unspectacular glam-rock outfit Japan. By the time the quartet disbanded in the mid-Eighties, Sylvian had transformed the group into a revered art-rock ensemble with world beat, new age, and jazz leanings. The singer's solo career has been even more impressive, resulting in classic cult recordings like "Brilliant Trees," "Gone to Earth," and "Secrets of the Beehive." These albums rank as some of the most haunting and exquisite pop records ever made. Indeed Sylvian compositions such as "September" and "Laughter & Forgetting" are filled with plangent longing.

It's been nearly six years since Sylvian released a full-length recording, but it's unclear whether fans will embrace his enigmatic new album. Dead Bees on a Cake is neither a clear-cut success nor an outright disappointment. Although the album features the jazz melodies and global rhythms loyalists have come to expect, it breaks little new ground. In fact this fourteen-song collection sounds more like a career overview, a muted celebration of past triumphs. One comes away with the saddening impression that Sylvian has reached a point of creative exhaustion.

Sylvian has always taken a painterly approach to composing and recording, and Dead Bees is another painstakingly assembled effort. The disc runs the gamut from mellow jazz-funk balladry to impressionistic blues and haunting world-music forays. Yet for all its gemlike beauty, the disc lacks the ethereal radiance of Sylvian's past work.

The singer's mawkish spiritualism is especially noisome. In the past the singer's prayerful sentiments were offset by jarring images of mental torment and physical abuse. Dead Bees boasts no such neutralizing imagery. Otherwise appealing tracks such as "Cafe Europa" and "Krishna Blue" are marred by spoken-word performances so corny they would make Jewel recoil. This kind of metaphysical hokum drags Sylvian's inspiring melodies down. In the end Dead Bees is a sweet-tasting confection that lacks sting.

-- Bruce Britt

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