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Friday, November 04, 2005

You know, I searched and searched to find the contents of this album, and now a couple years later after having gotten the music scattered over a few different discs, I sit down to blog about it, decide to google an image, and here it all is, easy as pie.

I first heard a track from it more than 20 years ago, back in Ann Arbor, when my friend Steve A. was a DJ at the campus station, and Irving Berlin's "The Song Is Ended" was on a compilation he came across, and he played it for me, thinking I might like it, and was he ever right. Armstrong and the 4 Millses singing, Armstrong's trumpet, and the one guitar of the Mills Brothers, and that's it. Super slick sophisticated witty gorgeous singing from all concerned, just sublime. It was years and years before I heard another track by the ensemble, and then I read that they recorded 11 tunes together over a few years in the late '30s, and I wanted them. I'm glad to have found them. It'd've been easier to have found this disc!

To some ears today the Mills Brothers might sound kitschy, particularly their "gimmick" of imitating brass and reed sounds with their voices. They do it so well, and the arrangements are so spritely and sophisticated, I simply find it beautiful. Louis Armstrong had no problem with it: On their recording of Berlin's "My Walking Stick," one of the Millses takes a "trumpet" lead, and Armstrong "responds" to the phrases of the "vocal trumpet" with his actual trumpet. The effect is witty and musically wonderful.

This post by The Anachronist got me thinking about this music again. It's got some of the sweetest singing by Armstrong that I've ever heard, as well as some of the toughest and wittiest -- he sings Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home" in the voice of a slick, lowkey, smarmy preacher, and he blows the lyric's white southern fantasy of "darkies longing for the old plantation" to heaven and back. He closes with a smarmy aside, "Well looky here, we are far away from home." Then, in his own tough voice, sublimely sarcastic and yet without anger, he has so transcended the attitudes that would keep him down: a quick and dismissive, "Yeah man."

Which is almost, and not at all, Amen.
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