It’s no secret that tribute albums and charity compilations can be hit-or-miss affairs at best. In the case of the latter, all you can really do is be happy that you’re supporting a good cause, and hope that the music is more hit than miss. Two important charity albums have recently appeared, and when I say important, I don’t just mean for the causes they’re helping, but also for the virtual who’s who of contemporary indie artists that has contributed tracks to them. If you could somehow assemble all of the buzz that these artists have collected, you could light the universe. In other words, to the naked eye, it’s a music blogger’s dream.
The Red Hot Organization has been using pop culture to fight the good fight against AIDS since 1989. They have released 14 albums together with related television shows and media events, and have raised $7 million to date. Their most recent project is called Dark Was the Night (4AD Records). It’s an enormous 30-song effort that has been curated by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National. In addition to a track from the National, contributors include Bon Iver, The Decemberists, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, Andrew Bird, Feist, and a host of others.
Let me say right up front that apparently Bon Iver can do no wrong. From Justin Vernon’s nearly perfect debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, to his recently released Blood Bank EP, and now, this album’s best track “Brackett, WI,” there have been few, if any, missteps. Vernon is also involved here in an intriguing collaboration with Aaron Dessner called “Big Red Machine.”
Sufjan Stevens’ contribution, “You Are the Blood,” reminds me that it’s been too long since we’ve had new music from him. Antony and Bryce Dessner duet on a beautiful version of the traditional “I Was Young When I Left Home.” Yes, Feist is here, combining with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie on “Train Song,” and with Grizzly Bear on “Service Bell.”
The Decemberists make it clear that they’re the band to watch this year with “Sleepless,” but Arcade Fire isn’t about to give up the top indie spot, and they make that clear on the driving “Lenin.” The Kronos Quartet deconstructs the Blind Willie Johnson song that gave the album its title, and Yo La Tengo (Jersey representing!) chips in with the hypnotic “Gentle Hour.”
There are songs by the New Pornographers, Yeasayers, My Morning Jacket, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Cat Power, Spoon, and even though Conner Oberst is not usually my cup of tea, I have to admit that his duet with the great Gillian Welch (and beautiful guitar work as usual from David Rawlings) “Lua,” is pretty damned good.
What struck me most about Dark Was the Night was how somber our music has become. There are really only a handful of tracks here that could be described as rock and roll. And remember, these are the top bands in indie rock today. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I miss electric guitars and drums. That said, if it’s a summary of what’s going on in popular music today that you want, and you want it all in one place, you couldn’t do much better than Dark Was the Night. There are more hits than misses here overall, and it’s for a great cause, so by all means invest in this one.
Speaking of great causes, for a number of years, War Child has been supporting children in regions devastated by war, while at the same time building awareness among North American young people so that they can be part of the solution. War Child Presents Heroes (Astralwerks Records) is the second of the season’s big charity releases. The album is built on an intriguing concept. War Child asked 16 musical legends to choose a track from their catalogue, and then nominate one of today’s musical stars to cover it for the album.
Right off the bat, this album is less cutting edge, but somewhat more accessible than Dark Was the Night, if only because the songs here are more or less instantly recognizable even in their new versions. It’s fair to say that the artists are a bit more mainstream, as you might expect. The current bands that the musical legends have chosen are in some cases predictable — the Hold Steady covering Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” or the Kooks with a very faithful version of the Kinks “Victoria,” to give a couple of examples. Other choices are not so obvious: Lily Allen has a very different take on the Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” though I think that much of the song’s desperation has been lost in the translation. Did we really need yet another version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” as performed here by English chanteuse Estelle? Not me.
When the combination is right, however, it’s very right: There’s a wonderful medley of songs from Brian Wilson’s SMiLE performed by Rufus Wainwright, and Elbow can be counted on to contribute something unique, and so they do with their version of U2’s “Running to Stand Still.” This band needs more exposure in the United States. I like the spirit of Peaches’ cover of the Stooges “Search and Destroy,” and Adam Cohen adds a lovely Spanish-language take on his father’s “Take This Waltz,” recorded live. Finally there’s a re-invention of David Bowie’s title track from Rolling Stone’s 2008 album poll winners, TV on the Radio, who prove more than up to the task.
War Child Presents Heroes is another hit-or-miss affair, but given that the highs are very high indeed, the misses are at least interesting, and the cause is a no-brainer, it’s worth your time and money.