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"Legend" by Mississippi John Hurt, "Dots and Loops" by Stereolab

By Michael Henningsen

Mississippi John Hurt
Legend (Rounder)

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Mississippi John Hurt had two careers--some 35 years apart, both of which equally confounded musicologists and audiences of the respective day. Born in Teoc, Miss., between 1892 and 1894 and raised five miles away in the rural village of Avalon in Carroll County, Hurt didn't have much contact with music or musicians outside his hometown. But he still managed to develop a guitar playing and singing style quite unlike that of most of the blues musicians of the area. His unique syncopated fingerpicking and smooth diction first caught the attention of OKeh Records in 1928, and Hurt was called to Memphis to record eight sides for the label in 1929. Hurt's records sold relatively well for an unknown artist, but the Great Depression ended the first chapter of his career almost as quickly as it had begun. He returned to Avalon and sustained himself working the family farm and playing music when he could, mostly at local dances and private gatherings.

In the early 1960s, with the rise of the folk movement, Hurt's music was rediscovered by Tom Hoskins, who convinced Hurt to travel to Washington, D.C., to record once again. Hurt reluctantly agreed and subsequently made two records--Avalon Blues and Worried Blues--currently available on Rounder. Made between 1963 and 1964 from informal, late night studio sessions, the recordings that comprise Legend are, perhaps, some of the most intimate of Hurt's career.

With this set of recordings, the only obvious influence on Hurt's style is crystal clear: His style of the blues has long confused students of the genre because Hurt borrowed more from the country music of Jimmy Rogers and from ragtime musicians than he did from blues artists, most of whom he had little or no contact with. His smooth, storyteller's voice and subtle guitar playing are magical forces that worked together to create and define a blues subgenre that's quite unlike anything the casual listener is likely used to associating with the blues. And this unbelievably clean release is the perfect place to get to know the legendary music of Mississippi John Hurt. !!!!!

Dots and Loops (Elektra)

I'm blown away that Stereolab consistently get away with passing off what is basically Muzak as one of the hippest, most interesting forms of alternative music around. But their quirky, off-kilter sound collages manage to tickle the "this-must-be-art reflex" within the mind of the listener just enough so that their music becomes far more vital than the dreck heard on most elevators. But their latest record, Dots and Loops, is something of an enigma. There are interesting sonic elements throughout the album's 65 minutes and 56 seconds, but the whole affair is rather flat and, quite frankly, spineless.

The record's plethora of smooth, silky grooves never evolve into much more than the simple textures that they begin as. Backdrops simply fold in on themselves instead, giving way to one another rather than feeding off of or fueling one another. Stereolab's standard array of analog synths, guitars, organs and beatboxes are present in all their retro glory, but the band's members--Tim Gane, Mary Hansen, Richard Harrison, Morgane Lhote, Laetitia Sadier and Andrew Ramsay--seem too concerned with making a soundtrack to mall shopping than with force-feeding their audience their latest bit of collective genius. And in that sense, Dots and Loops is a far cry from the band's previous and quite brilliant disc, Emperor Tomato. The latest Stereolab is as daring and exciting as riding an escalator over and over again.

What might confound the listener, though, is that Dots and Loops is not entirely an unpleasant experience. In fact, it's so sterile and lackluster that it might just be the perfect record to be gloriously idle to. And music that inspires something akin to what is lovingly referred to in most mental hospitals as the Thorazine shuffle is at least somewhat inspiring.

As one might imagine, there's anything but a standout track here. Most of the potentially spectacular grooves are never allowed to get off the ground, so to speak, and the whole thing just becomes one big exercise in stifling and early withdrawal. Of course, I could just be missing the point. !!

--Michael Henningsen

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