Left of the Dial: Dispatches From the '80s Underground
This four-disc box of '80s college rock sounds like its compilers sequenced it by throwing the I Ching. How to follow the Smiths' "This Charming Man," you might wonder? Simple: change! To Ministry—followed by, you know, Lone Justice. What planet are we on? Left of the Dial isn't even awful; it's just absurd, a semi-idealized juxtaposition of stuff, plenty of it terrific, that no single college DJ of the period would have ever played in the same set. The thing moves with such stubborn fitfulness that it's almost impossible to listen to all the way through—not a good sign in a various-artists anthology, a forum that lives and dies on flow. Dial is a mess; chances are even those who love it will still want to throw out a third of it, substitute different songs by another third's artists, and resequence whatever's left. But it's a revealing mess. Unfortunately, what it reveals is that (a) this stuff has aged at least as badly as—and in many cases, worse than—the mainstream music its partisans claimed it would outlast, and (b) the randomness of college-radio DJing is not something to aspire to in your own home. Really, the only thing tying together Kate Bush, Gun Club, Camper Van Beethoven, Suicidal Tendencies, Cocteau Twins, and Happy Mondays, to choose a particularly bewildering sequence from disc four, is that each of them might have been chosen by a different member of The Breakfast Club. (Suicidal is definitely Bender's choice; Kate Bush, Allison's; Gun Club, probably the janitor's.) In a weird way, though, this splintering just makes the box more accurate. No collection I've heard has so well evoked the awkward gear shifts you've come to expect from actual college radio. There's even a requisite bathroom-break record, Bauhaus' nine-and-a-half-minute ur-goth standard, "Bela Lugosi's Dead." It's surprising that Rhino didn't program a couple songs to accidentally cut out two-thirds of the way through, followed by
20 seconds' silence and the next selection starting at the wrong speed. (Surely one approach or the other could only improve the The, Sisters of Mercy, Concrete Blonde, or Ultravox cuts.) Frankly, though, if Rhino's leaving the net that wide open, why not include some hip-hop, which owed at least as many of its early fans to college radio as geek-quirk or synth-gloom? Run-D.M.C. or Public Enemy certainly couldn't sound any more out of place here than Suicidal's "Institutionalized" or Faith No More's "We Care a Lot." Plus, being reminded of hip-hop's eventual pop-culture takeover could help further feed the college-rock generation's sense of embattlement, the most boring in pop history: Just check Karen Schoemer's liner essay, which bemoans Madonna ("Pop artifice had officially conquered rock integrity. Music now officially sucked") and praises New Order ("transcendent beats of the dance floor") for making the exact same music. (She also mistakes latter-day Sonic Youth for "avant-garde jazz composers.") It's enough to make you miss the hippies this box's target audience hated the first time around. MICHAELANGELO MATOS
The late '80s was a singularly unfortunate moment for West African music to court the favor of U.S. rock audiences. Consumer research may have hinted at an untapped market for melodramatic exotica capable of bridging the emotional divide between "In Your Eyes" and "Orinoco Flow"; in reality, Peter Gabriel fans usually had the common decency not to rubberneck at a griot's attempt to wriggle out from underneath a synthesizer. Nearly two decades later, however, a newish cosmopolitan crop of potential crossovers take the opposite tack, backtracking from their assumed familiarity with contemporary Western pop to reinterpret African tradition. Where her most notable contemporaries, such as Issa Bagayoga and Daby Touré, integrate subtler and less schlocky electronics into their balafon and kamelengoni arrangements, Rokia Traoré is a true folkie—none of this newfangled "electricity" for her, thanks. Fortunately she's so infatuated with musical tradition, she's not afraid to get it wrong if that's what it takes to make it hers. A Malian diplomat's daughter raised mostly in Europe, Traoré seems to return to those familiar circular melodies for rootedness and assurance, her lithe voice harmonizing with itself to create an imagined community. And when the more conventional singer Ousmane Seck keens up against her on "Mariama," the contrast between voices reveals what's truly distinct about Traoré: a gently sorrowful gentility lacking the Arabic tinge that customarily conveys loss in West African singing. So where Youssou N'Dour enlisted an Arab orchestra for his latest pancultural achievement, Egypt, Traoré sounds perfectly comfortable performing and composing on several tracks with the Kronos Quartet—more comfortable, for sure, than N'Dour ever did with a DX-7. KEITH HARRIS
Rokia Traoré plays the Triple Door at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 21, part of the Earshot Jazz Festival. $26.