Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot [Archeophone, 2003]
Because David Wondrich's sourcebook cracks so wise, and because pre-electrical recordings are so tinny, you'll get happier reading about this music than listening to it. But there's a third reason: although most of these 27 1897-1925 selections are groundbreaking, the conventions they're tethered to are boulders they scarcely budge. Listening to early Armstrong is like reading Yeats--they're both so vivid and immediate you don't care how dated they are. Listening to Vess Ossman or Arthur Pryor (major innovators, as the book makes clearer than the notes) is more like reading Edwin Arlington Robinson. So take this as a hell of a history lesson. Play it half a dozen times and you'll adjust to its aural coordinates, but even then you may enjoy its quaintness more than its raunch or roll. Two great exceptions: Bert Williams's "Nobody," a barely sung set piece that gains inevitability until it stands there a masterwork, and Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues," in which a black vaudevillian and her black band revolutionize the record industry and have a ball doing it. B+