Next Tuesday, War Child International will release Heroes, a compilation of younger artists (Beck, Duffy, TV on the Radio) covering songs by superstars (Bob Dylan, the Ramones, David Bowie), with the proceeds going to aid children in war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Sudan. For music fans looking to do good, it’s a worthy way to spend $10. Sixteen songs on your iPod sure beat the usual charity tote bag.
But is Heroes actually a good album?
What makes it interesting is the concept: The original acts hand-picked the younger performers they trusted most to interpret their work. So Blondie chose Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand to perform “Call Me,” Roxy Music tapped electro-glam group Scissor Sistors for “Do the Strand,” and Bruce Springsteen favored (surprise!) lyrical storytellers the Hold Steady to take on “Atlantic City.” The intended result? Great songs, a new generation of musicians getting the chance to prove their chops, and big bucks for a good cause.
More War Child on SPIN.com: >> Beck, Lily Allen, TV on the Radio Cover Rock Legends >> Album Stream: Beck Covers Dylan, YYYs Cover Ramones >> Exclusive Song: The Hold Steady Cover Springsteen But when you actually listen to the album, even the great intentions can’t disguise the album’s advanced-Karaoke song quality and lack of coherent song choice.
Some recent covers albums have been more successful. No-Cal folk group Vetiver’s last release, Thing of the Past, called attention to great, often obscure songwriters who influenced them, including Michael Hurley, Bobby Charles, and Derroll Adams. The album hopefully will inspire a new generation of folk enthusiasts to track down the original recordings.
Similarly, Phosphorescent’s To Willie is Matthew Houck’s love letter to Willie Nelson, crafted out of the longtime outlaw singer’s more obscure tunes (in the same way Willie did for Lefty Frizell decades ago). It works because Houck’s interpretations deepen our understanding of Nelson — and the songs.
Some tribute compilations also have their appeal. Stereogum’s series of seminal album reinterpretations — e.g.,ï¿½ Bjork’s Post, Radiohead’s OK Computer, REM’s Automatic for the People — mix cover versions by up-and-coming acts. These projects are endearing and sometimes fascinating endeavors. They are a great way for buzzed-up bands to prove whether they’re capable of creating something successful out of a strong template. Most fail, understandably. Some, like Ed Droste and Owen of Final Fantasy’s fluttering duet of Bjork’s “Possibly Maybe,” and Vampire Weekend’s rhythmic take on Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a Film),” succeed. By keeping the project focused overall, regardless of whether each song works perfectly, they illuminate key pieces of what makes the source material so powerful.
Don’t get me wrong. Heroes has its moments. Lily Allen’s bright, silky cover of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” (featuring Clash guitarist Mick Jones) has been stuck in my head for weeks. And Peaches’ dancey bass/synth and assertive vocals do “Search and Destroy” surprising justice.
But the 16 tracks bear no relationship to each other. There’s no musical or lyrical link. These songs have been chosen for their “classic” status — not because they share any war- or child-related subject matter. There’s no sense of the selections having been curated at all. Worse, few of the younger artists manage to transcend the original versions, resulting in as many bored yawns among listeners as perked ears. Basically, it’s a hit-and-misstape.
Heroes isn’t an entirely lost effort, but I can’t help wishing they had just released a few singles instead of an album. The undeniably attractive concept of letting legends pick their protï¿½gï¿½s grabs attention song-by-song, but it cracks and crumbles when stretched across 16 incongruent tracks. War Child’s charitable intentions are faultless. I only wish the results had turned out better.