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Various artists

Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the '80s Underground


Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

It's tempting to write the '80s off as a shallow, narcisistic decade, a time when designer drugs and pre-fab music collided to produce a generation of selfish, medicated nitwits with less than thoughtful taste in music. Since this is my generation, and since I never fit in with it, I've often espoused this point of view. Graduating both high school and college in this decade, and then entering the "real world" just as its tail-lights started to fade has long made it tough for me to be objective about it; I wanted so badly to forget it.

The benefit of distance means that we can now see the 80s, at least musically, for what they were; a decade when the mainstream sunk to new lows, and the underground exploded into a playground where the real art was being made by post-punk do-it-yourselfers whose concerns had little in common with the folks cramming dance floors and getting down to Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, or purchasing enough Aqua Net for their metal hair-dos to create a sizeable ulcer in the ozone.

If we look at the '80s through the lens afforded by Rhino's tasty new "Left of the Dial" four-disc set, we see that there is much to celebrate from the me decade, most of which never got the mainstream attention afforded some of the time's best artists -- U2 and Peter Gabriel, for example. And what is most pleasantly surprising is the sheer, bloody-minded diversity of it all; there's dreamy shoe-gazing esoterica, scathing garage-punk, and synthesizer-based pre-electronica in equal measure, and the hip listener of the day was likely to have all of these represented in their record collection. Strict segregation and the establishment of rigid formatting had not worked their evil magic yet.

From R.E.M.'s Athens, Ga., mushmouthed post-Byrds jangling genius, to the ornate psychedelic pop of XTC; from the politcal razor wire of the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia" to the reverb-drenched melodrama of the Cure's "A Forest"; from the post-Doors and Bowie-heavy noir-rock of Echo and the Bunnymen to the ribald brilliance of Bad Brains, the alternative underground was blossoming like a black and bloody orchid.

The counterculture of the '60s and the punk rebellion of the '70s gave birth to what, in retrospect, was a wholly developed movement -- though, happily, it was a movement too broad to fit beneath one umbrella. Listening to "Left of the Dial" eases the pain of looking back at a decade when many seeds of future discontent were planted.

-- Jeff Miers



The Piano Concertos and Paganini Rhapsody

Performed by Stephen Hough and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton


Review: 3 stars

Variations on a Theme of Corelli and Chopin and Paganini Rhapsody

Performed by Nikolai Lugansky and City of Birmingham Symphony under Sakair Oramo

Warner Classics]

Review: 2 1/2 stars

There is innate power in anarchronism. Bach, in his prime, was nothing if not old-fashioned. And winner and still champion of the 20th century concert hall was the tall, gloomy Russian virtuoso pianist who always wrote as if he were preserving the 19th. Rachmaninov was as resolutely backward-looking as a composer can be, an artistic stance reinforced by the Russian Revolution, subsequent self-exile and his late life as one of the most honored of living, world-touring pianists. He wrote "big tunes" without shame and was using the melodies of others in variation form. It couldn't be less surprising that one of the greatest and most popular compositions of his late life was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the set of variations from 1934.

It's common to two new Rachmaninov recordings -- Nikolai Lugansky's brilliant but willful set of Rachmaninov variations and Stephen Hough's superb two-disc set where it is embedded with all four of Rachmaninov's piano concertos.

Read Hough's statement with the disc in the notes and you fully understand how much he is a student of this music rather than a virtuosic and gymnastic exploiter of it. Even in one of the most crowded of all recording fields, his set is a good and welcome one.

More problematic by far is young Nikolai Lugansky's set of variations -- not only because the solo Corelli and Chopin variations are among Rachmaninov's weaker works but because his playig in them combines flash and ungainliness, as if he'd really prefer to be playing Prokofiev. On the other hand, the disc is worth savoring for the rare details conductor Sakair Oramo brings out in the orchestration of the Paganini Rhapsody.

-- Jeff Simon



Twelve Etudes, Op. 25 performed by pianist Frederic Chiu

Harmonia Mundi]

Review: 4 stars

Chopin's Etudes amaze me. They're supposed to be exercises -- in each one, Chopin zeroes in on a different technical problem -- but they're so beautiful, so exquisite, so seductive! Chiu, happily, brings out the pieces' je ne sais quoi the way the best pianists do.

The "Aeolian Harp" Etude, in A flat, shines with longing, and in the pretty D flat Etude, the triplets gather in a graceful wave. The "Butterfly" Etude, No. 9, shimmers with understated virtuosity. Chiu tacks on the three Etudes in the style of Moscheles, and they're a delight, especially the beautiful A flat Etude in calm triplets. (My mother argues that "Matchmaker, Matchmaker" from "Fiddler on the Roof" was ripped off from this piece.)

The Barcarolle, Op. 60, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61 and the curiously grown-up Berceuse, Op. 57, round out the disc.

-- Mary Kunz


Mos Def

The New Danger


Review: 3 stars

As rap and hip hop continue to attempt to redefine themselves, an argument is arising; should rap embrace rock?

Metal artists who appropriated rap plundered and fumbled, producing a shrill noise that did service to neither rap nor metal. Now, rappers are coming rock's way, and the results are sometimes intresting, sometimes dreadful.

Mos Def's "The New Danger" falls firmly into the former category. It's almost wholly a rock album, although its ethos still remains a hip hop one, with rhythm and cadence claiming supremacy over harmonic content. Begining with the late-night, boozey slur of the r&b ballad "The Boogie Man Song," and proceeding through a foggy blend of hard rock, metal and decidedly East Coast rhyming, the record doesn't so much startle as subtly insinuate itslef, almost without the listener noticing.

For some, the lack of rapid-fire rhyming and the slow-burning, uncluttered production might suggest a certain sluggishness, an idea underscored by Mos Def's often sleepy delivery. Throughout, he sounds as if he's, um, had a couple, to say the least, but he still brings the noise when it's appropriate, as on the torrid "Ghetto Rock."

"The New Danger" grows on you slowly. Spend time with it, and what eventually emerges is a modern hip hop record that succesfully embraces rock.

-- Jeff Miers