Sunday, March 1, 2009

'Dark Was the Night'/'War Child Presents Heroes'

Here’s a cliché lead: Do bad charity comps get extra points for having good intentions? I mean, I wouldn’t call The Red Hot Organization’s AIDS benefit Dark Was the Night “sonic opium for brain dead indie kids,” or the pacifist pleas of War Child Presents Heroes “a deliberate attempt to rape your favorite songs,” but, you know, sometimes those thoughts flit through my mind when I play these two wildly uneven albums.

I’ve gotten some sweet political benefit comps in my day. I still spin

Rock Against Bush, Future Soundtrack for America, and Stop Racism on a regular basis, and even We are the World had some good songs (Prince and Bruce Springsteen kill it. Go download “Trapped” right now). I feel a slight sense of pride for contributing to the causes those records benefitted. But that smug sense of superiority takes a distant second place to how I feel about the music. The above albums introduced me to exciting new bands and rare material from old favorites. These were great rock comps that just so happened to be for charity. I don’t feel that way about Dark Was the Night or War Child Heroes. Rather, I feel kinda gypped.

In different senses of the word, both records suffer from repetition. Dark Was the Night recommits the sins of Plea for Peace/Take Action and Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur by diluting a solid single disc track listing with lamer, tamer songs. At 31 tracks, Dark could stand for some editing. Kronos Quartet should’ve been cut for composing such a spare instrumental string piece. You’re doing this for the kids, guys! Try harder. Same goes for Iron & Wine, who underwrites “Die,” while The Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens massively overwrite their songs.

Spoon attempts to liven up the second disc with “Well-Alright,” which bites its nervous style and song title from Buddy Holly. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings’ “Inspiration Information,” is pretty chill for a ’70s-style soul track, but it feels infinitely funky when paired with My Morning Jacket and Beirut. For the most part, though, you have to really like vanilla chill out indie/folk music. Even normally uproarious indie bands like Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, and Yo La Tengo seem groggy here. The great irony of these underground songs is that most of them remind of The Eagles, America, and other shitty remnants of “the L.A. Sound” from the ’70s.

Not all of the bands recall that style, thankfully; Feist and Ben Gibbard collaborate well on “Train Song,” in so much that it sounds like a Feist song (kinda hazy, vaguely gospel-tinged) with Ben Gibbard hanging out. I expect comps to turn me on to new music, and even a crap-fest like Dark Was the Night offered me a few unheralded gems: Dave Sitek’s dreamy/electronic “With a Girl Like You” is a treasure. The record also changed my mind about The Books and Bon Iver; each artist has at least one good song, apparently. Still, though, I’m grateful for my iPod. Dark Was the Night has a lot of filler, as I’ve uploaded nine out of 31 tracks.

War Child Heroes isn’t sleepy like Dark Was the Night, but it sure is boring in spots. The premise: Music legends pick contemporary artists to cover their work. Turns out my favorite artists have bad taste. Rufus Wainwright limply attempts a stripped down take on “pocket symphony” maestro Brian Wilson, which is thoroughly pointless. Duffy tries out Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” which makes sense to the extent that she kinda grates like Axl Rose. The Kooks rehash The Kinks, and Leonard Cohen picked his freaking son Adam to cover him. This record is almost completely lacking in surprises – Franz Ferdinand covers Blondie a little too closely; Beck faux-covers Bob Dylan and just sounds like Beck.

Sometimes the faithfulness pays off, though. Yeah Yeah Yeahs barely attempt to alter The Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” but the playfulness inherent in the song still brightens up the mix. The Hold Steady don’t tweak Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” much. They actually borrow pretty liberally from the E Street Band’s Live in New York City version, transposing the violin part for saxophone (which is fitting) and stealing the drum beat outright (which is slightly lazy). But at least it still rocks.

The two big surprises are Lily Allen and TV on the Radio. TV covers David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and it’s shocking how much they come off sounding like U2 circa their ’90s electronica period. Allen, meanwhile, turns in a version of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” that’s both freshly original yet very reverential. The Combat Rock song is actually pretty subdued for a Joe Strummer song. The anger is all in the lyrics; the music is quiet like a lullaby. Pretty pop songs with biting, vitriolic lyrics are pretty much Allen’s M.O., making her a perfect choice for “Straight to Hell.” Rather than dial up punk fury, she pushes the electronic dance vibe further, making the song a secret success in a field of duller covers.

Between Dark Was the Night and War Child Heroes, I have a playlist of 13 songs. It’s not especially lengthy, but at 53 minutes’ length, it’s still plenty of music. In the digital age, bloated track lists are not something I can abide by. Neither album is completely without merit, but there’s enough fluff to make either one a lackluster purchase. Supporting charity is important, but so is visiting an online music dealer to sift the good songs on these comps from all the garbage.

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