There’s a case to be made that the charity recording is one of the most unfortunate inventions of the 20th century. They always end up feeling like the worst combination of the 1960s and 1970s: the self-importance of the former, the bloated excess of the latter. They take advantage of public sentiment and star power to build profile for their participants. But most significantly, they usually suck. Some feel tossed off, quick and dirty projects from people who should be able to do better. Others are overcooked, too many participants sucking any spontaneity out of the process. Epitomized by the unholy trifecta of 1980s Ethiopian aid songs, charity music wears too many albatrosses to usually be worth one’s time.
(As a quick aside, I was always fascinated by how the three Ethiopian aid songs so perfectly reflected their host countries: the cultural insensitivity and colonial echoes of England’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” the smug self-importance of America’s “We Are the World,” the watery-eyed commitment to abstract internationalism in Canada’s “Tears are Not Enough.”)
But as with all my musical biases, all you have to do is toss me a pile of “my favourite band”-flavoured bones and I’m more than happy to put them aside. So it has been with not one, but TWO high-profile charity albums that have been released in the past couple of weeks. Both come from organizations who have done more than anyone else to redeem the charity recording over the past two decades. One is a near-masterpiece; the other, an interesting but ultimately more hit-or-miss experience. But what’s remarkable about both is their quality independent of their benefactors. One could never imagine listening to “We Are the World” as anything other than a charitable act – sacrificing taste for Africa? – but these records are worth exploring even if you didn’t give a shit about the causes they support (although really, you should).
The first comes from Red Hot, who have put out a number of charity records since the late 80s to benefit organizations fighting the spread of AIDS. Most famously, their 1993 release No Alternative – which featured Pavement, Nirvana, Soundgarden and more – managed to also encapsulate the mainstream/underground collision occurring in rock and roll at the time, and it remains one of the 1990s’ more valuable cultural documents. While a very different beast musically, I have a sneaking suspicion that Dark Was the Night may end up the same for the late 2000s indie rock scene.
For one, the list of artists contributing to the two-disc set reads like a Pitchfork year-end list: Feist, Grizly Bear, Spoon, Arcade Fire, New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo, the Decemberists, Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket…I could go on and on. Suffice to say, it’s impressive. And each and every track is previously unreleased. The contributors do trend strongly towards the folk-inspired end of the indie rock spectrum – the closet thing to a hip hop track is a Buck 65 remix, and you won’t find much to get you up on your feet and dancing. But this limitation is actually one of the collection’s greatest strengths: it feels like a unified whole, something worth sitting through from start to finish as opposed to a collection where you’re attracted to a song or two and skip the rest.
Credit for that unison goes to producer brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, both of The National. The two not only worked to assemble the record’s participants, but they also play on several of the tracks (and, with their traditional bandmates, contribute “So Far Around the Bend,” one of the first disc’s highlights). The collection lives and breathes like a whole recording, flowing through its darker edges and into genuine moments of playful joy.
At the risk of ignoring a plethora of standouts, a few highlights stick with me every time I put the record on my stereo. I’ve not listened much to Yeasayer before, but the vocal melody of “Tightrope” is as infectious as anything I’ve heard all year. Feist and Ben Gibbard manage to both sound exactly as you’d expect and completely otherworldly in tackling Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song.” I would never have thought of having Antony (he of “and the Johnsons”) tackle Dylan, but his take on “I Was Young When I Left Home” is superb. Spoon’s “Well-Alright” is wonderfully lo-fi, but disc two’s highlight is Dave Sitek’s “With a Girl Like You,” with a sound that meets Phil Spector and modern noise pop halfway.
All of it kind of pales next to Sufjan Stevens’ “You Are the Blood,” though. Maybe it’s just that it’s been almost four years since Illinois and The Avalanche and I’m desperate for new music from my favourite orchestral pop wunderkind. But even ignoring that, the epic 10-minute version of a song by his labelmates Castanets is a staggering piece of work. With apocalyptic force, the track moves between fragmented movements as if it’s simultaneously folk and foreign, its guitars and pianos punctured by blaring horns of chaos. If you’re balking at the $18 price tag for Dark Was the Night – even in spite of a great cause AND two full discs of riches – take heed: this recording is almost single-handedly worth the price of admission.
With only one disc, War Child’s Heroes is a cheaper point of entry to the charity album game for the consumer, but that doesn’t mean that it’s cheap. If Dark Was the Night is (consciously or unconsciously) attempting to sum up modern indie rock in one fell swoop, Heroes is a more calculated experiment. The concept: reach out to 16 legendary artists, ask them to select both a song from their catalogue and a modern band that you’d like to see cover it. It’s sort of like reverse hero-worship: who do the icons of rock and roll think are worthy of tackling their material?
Some of the choices are almost too obvious, though not necessarily disappointingly so. Of course Springsteen would pick The Hold Steady. Of course David Bowie would pick TV on the Radio (he guested on Return to Cookie Mountain, after all). That doesn’t mean that their contributions aren’t among the records highlights; both “Atlantic City” and “Heroes” don’t necessarily dramatically alter the songs’ templates, but they’re tackled with the right balance of reverence and resolve. (That said, what’s with Leonard Cohen choosing his own son to cover “Take this Waltz”? Keeping it in the family, I guess?)
Unlike Dark Was the Night, there’s less of a cohesive mood here, and the middle of the record in particular doesn’t really gell. In part it’s because the artists pick songs that are way too iconic; in part it’s that the reinterpretations don’t do much beyond speed up or slow down the original. Franz Ferdinand’s “Call Me,” Duffy’s “Live and Let Die” and Estelle’s “Superstition” are well done and all, but leave that cold taste of insignificance in your mouth once they’re done.
Some of the more obscure choices – on the parts of both the legends and the modern acts – fare best. “Straight to Hell” probably ranks quite low on the list of Clash songs one would think to cover, but with Mick Jones by her side Lily Allen turns it into a completely irresistible pop track. I was worried about Peaches’ take on “Search and Destroy,” but by removing the guitar track and focusing on the bassline the song gains an unexpected edge that’s quite becoming. Hot Chip are one of the best electro-pop acts working today, and they take the pop core of Joy Division’s “Transmissions” and elevate it without losing the edge of the original.
My favourite tracks, though, are Beck’s take on Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat” – my favourite Blonde on Blonde track done with just the right amount of energy – and Elbow’s cover of U2’s “Running to Stand Still,” still The Joshua Tree’s most underrated track. The latter, in particular, manages to somehow draw out the song and make it sound more epic and more understated at the same time.
Ultimately, Heroes feels more like a traditional charity record than Dark Was the Night. It’s more disjointed – and the fact that its tracks are in a different order in the North American and European releases only goes to demonstrate that – and it’s an album where you’ll find yourself jumping around to your favourite songs instead of sitting all the way through. That said, there’s more than enough gems here to give it a listen if the tracklist seems up your alley.