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A celebration of disco's maligned innovation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Various

The Disco Box (Rhino 75595)

Even though both jazz and rock and roll take their names from slang terms for sex, the terms were accorded respect as the music they represented gained popularity. Disco, by contrast, had an utterly innocent etymology -- it was short for discotheque, a place for records -- and yet it ended up being treated as if it were the dirtiest word in pop music.

Even now, two decades past the peak of disco fever, there are those -- like Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan -- who still describe music they hate as "disco." To their way of thinking, disco was mass-produced dance fodder that completely lacked the intelligence and soul that lay at the heart of rock and roll. It didn't deserve respect.

Consider "The Disco Box" an argument to the contrary.

Not only does this four-CD set treat disco as a musical milestone, but the 80 examples it offers in disco's defense eloquently testify to the degree of innovation and diversity the style encompassed.

To begin with, disco was never as musically monotonous as the thump-thump-thump banality of "Disco Duck" suggested. There was the Latin percussion bubbling beneath Vickie Sue Robinson's "Turn the Beat Around"; the machine-like thrum of synths behind Donna Summer on "I Feel Love"; the jazzy swing of Heatwave's "Boogie Nights"; the funky abandon of Rose Royce's "Car Wash." And even those tangents represent just a few points on disco's musical compass.

That disco could include such a wide range of musical influences is testament to the diversity of the disco audience. Although some of disco's deepest roots were in the underground of black and gay clubs, the music's biggest hits never strayed very far from mainstream musical values. Much of it was guitar music, for one thing; from Shirley and Company's "Shame, Shame, Shame" to Chic's "Le Freak," the six-string strum had as much to do with the groove as anything the drummer did.

Nor was disco ever as simple-minded as its detractors insisted. Obviously, there were a lot of songs about dancing ("Everybody Dance," "Get Dancin'," "Dance With Me," et al.), but the same was true of rock and roll in its early days (remember "Twist & Shout"?). Disco songs could also be about longing and loneliness, and some of the most memorable -- Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way," Debbie Jacob's "Don't You Want My Love" -- are as deep as any blues.

Still, perhaps the most impressive aspect of "The Disco Box" is the way it presents the full continuum of the disco sound. Stretching from the soulful jangle of the Jackson Five's "Dancing Machine" to the drum-machine punch of "I.O.U." by Freeez, it suggests that disco was the real bridge connecting '60s soul to the hip-hop and house of today. And considering how many of these oldies have been sampled onto recent hits, it's a pretty convincing argument. ****

-- J. D. Considine

Pop/rock

Various

1999 Grammy Nominees (Elektra 62381)

Anyone hoping to get an early start at guessing which nominees will win a Grammy ought to make sure they own a copy of the "1999 Grammy Nominees" compilation. Although the disc doesn't cover all 95 Grammy categories -- that'd be a lot even for a boxed set -- it does give a full picture for two top categories. Record of the Year is a strong category, with Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine" and Shania Twain's "You're Still the One" both sounding like winners, but the diversity among Best New Artist nominees is a bit disconcerting (the segue from Backstreet Boys to Andrea Bocelli is jarring). As to why the third category represented is Best Pop Male Vocal, well, they had to bridge the gender gap somehow, didn't they? ***

-- J. D. Considine

Various artists

Grammy Rap Nominees 1999 (Elektra 62380)

When the rap category was first added to the Grammy ballot, many in the hip-hop community felt the move smacked of tokenism -- a suspicion supported by the early ballots' safe-as-milk nominees. But that's not quite the case this year, as "Grammy Rap Nominees 1999" makes plain. Although the CD does include its share of easily digestible pop-rap smashes like Will Smith's "Gettin' Jiggy With It" and the Jermaine Dupri/Mariah Carey duet, "Sweetheart," it also includes some of the year's edgier hits, such as Outkast's brilliant "Rosa Parks" and the sinuous "Find a Way" by A Tribe Called Quest. But the best tracks -- Busta Rhymes' "Dangerous," for instance, or "Ghetto Supastar" by Pras Michel -- manage to be both edgy and accessible. ***

-- J. D. Considine

Cher

Believe (Warner Bros. 47121)

After Cher revived her career in the late '70s with the disco hit "Take Me Home," she fell off the charts for eight years -- a dry spell broken by such hard-rock hits as "I Found Someone." So it may come as a shock that Cher's current comeback would be by way of an album as disco-derived as "Believe." Between the retro-disco sound of "Strong Enough" and the pneumatic synths of the title tune, Cher has completely forsaken her rock side. But the album's most surprising departure has more to do with Cher's singing than any stylistic shift. Instead of the throaty bravado that marked "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," Cher opts for a mannered soulfulness that at times leaves her sounding like Andy Bell of Erasure. Who'd believe it? **1/2

-- J. D. Considine

Various artists

Porn to Rock (CM 0301)

To a cynic, the only thing scarier than a porn star trying to act would be a porn star trying to sing. By that logic, a collection like "Porn to Rock" ought to be torture from beginning to end. In truth, though, it's like any novelty compilation, with selections ranging from quirkily catchy to nearly unlistenable. Musically, the album ranges from the Jane's Addiction-style rock of Madison's "Man on the Moon" to the thumping Miami bass of Midori's "5, 10, 15, 20," and from the roadhouse blues of Candye Kane's "The Meat Song" to the throbbing techno of "Harder" by Sabotage, featuring Chloe Nichole. But unless you're a hopeless fan, you may want to program around such efforts as Suzi Suzuki's awkward "Calypso Shower" or Hyapatia Lee's overblown "Strike Back." **

-- J. D. Considine

Soundtrack

The Only Broadway CD You'll Ever Need (RCA Victor 09026 63256)

The liner notes acknowledge the hubris of the title "The Only Broadway CD You'll Ever Need" and also explain that although RCA has been the one major label with a consistent commitment to recording Broadway shows, "we didn't get them all." That accounts for the CD's idiosyncrasies -- for example, Colm Wilkinson (of "Les Mis") singing "The Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha." To my knowledge, Wilkinson has never appeared in the show; instead, the track comes from a CD of show tunes he recorded for RCA. Equally odd is "America," taken not from a Broadway cast album of "West Side Story" but from the 1989 dance revue, "Jerome Robbins' Broadway." There are some original classics, however, such as Carol Channing singing the title song from "Hello, Dolly!", as well as some notable selections from revivals, such as Bebe Neuwirth's rendition of "All That Jazz" from "Chicago." And, for better or worse, there's no Andrew Lloyd Webber. The only Broadway CD I'll ever need? I don't think so. **

-- J. Wynn Rousuck

Pub Date: 02/18/99

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