Playing for Change, the globetrotting multimedia charity project that blends cutting-edge technology with lo-fi live street performances from artists around the world, is one of the coolest compilations to come out in 2009 — but if you aren’t the kind of person who spends a lot of time watching PBS or thumbing the racks at your local Starbucks, you probably missed it when it was released in April. So here, to help you mend the error of your ways, is something even cooler: the deluxe edition version of the album, which adds a DVD containing the entire Playing for Change documentary, titled Peace through Music, plus bonus material, to the original 10-song CD.
I reviewed the non-deluxe version of the album back in April, and this is what I had to say:
Whether itâ€™s complaining about the 33 killing the 78, warning of the evils of multi-track recording, decrying the widespread use of synthesizers, or hating on Pro Tools and Auto-Tune, older music fans have always complained about new developments in recording technology. Itâ€™s hard not to agree they have a point â€“ and always have â€“ but itâ€™s just as hard not to get excited about some of the incredible things that new technology has made possible. Case in point: producer Mark Johnsonâ€™s Playing for Change: Songs around the World, an amazing new multimedia project that took 10 years and all manner of high-tech gizmos to come together.
For a decade, Johnson and his crew traveled the world, recording a bewildering assortment of musicians â€“ most of them outside, in the streets and fields of their home countries â€“ and stitching the performances together to create a sort of all-star collaboration without the stars. Well, okay, there are a couple of stars â€“ Bono and Kebâ€™ Moâ€™ contribute â€“ but itâ€™s a testament to the overall quality of the musicians represented here, from Santa Monica street performer Roger Ridley to Israeli singer Tula and Congolese drummer Junior Kissanrigwa, that no one artist stands out from the pack. In fact, if thereâ€™s a real star here, itâ€™s Johnson, who took recordings made in the most disparate locations and made them sound like the work of a band playing in the same living room. Auto-Tune surely sucks, but if we have to accept it as a byproduct of the technology that makes this sort of thing possible, then itâ€™s worth it.
The CDâ€™s 10-song track listing is heavy on iconic covers â€“ songs that were probably selected in order to establish some quick common ground between the far-flung performers, but which work well in the context of the albumâ€™s stated goal of, in Johnsonâ€™s words, “to find a way to inspire the world to come together. To stop the hate. To see the commonality we share.” Theyâ€™re lofty ideals, to be sure, and theyâ€™ve been espoused by so many charity projects that itâ€™s easy to write them off as airy-fairy nonsense whenever we hear them, but goddamn if Playing for Change doesnâ€™t make them seem like they might someday be within reach. Hearing performers collaborate from across the globe on songs like “Stand by Me,” “One Love,” “Biko,” “War/No More Trouble,” and “Donâ€™t Worry” is nothing short of profoundly, deeply moving.
Playing for Changeâ€™s power is underscored by the included DVD, which intercuts footage of the musicians as they perform a handful of cuts from the album, adding a trailer for the project’s documentary and an informational clip about the foundation, which was inspired by the album and seeks to provide resources for musicians and their communities. Weâ€™ve already seen a number of charity compilations this year, and weâ€™ll surely see plenty more before 2010, but if youâ€™re only going to buy one â€“ whether for musical or altruistic reasons â€“ make it Playing for Change. Wonderful, just wonderful.
Everything I said then still applies — and actually, I enjoyed watching the videos even more than listening to the music without them, so the full-length DVD is a very welcome addition. If I’d paid for Playing for Change in the spring, however, I’d probably be pretty pissed right now. I mean, sure, the whole thing is still for a very good cause, but when Mariah Carey or Rihanna pull this kind of thing, we get rightfully incensed, so I’m more than a little conflicted. To the filmmakers’ credit, the Peace through Music is available separately (and exclusively through Amazon) — albeit for only $5 less than you’ll pay for the whole Deluxe Edition. Is it all worth owning? Absolutely — I just wonder why we had to have a Deluxe Edition at all, and couldn’t have instead gotten the whole package when the album was originally released.
Quibbling aside, Playing for Change really is one of the most moving, most entertaining compilations you’re going to find this year, and Mark Johnson deserves to be commended for his efforts no matter how many times it’s reissued. If you missed this the first time, don’t repeat your mistake.
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