A new crop of compilation albums hit (though occasionally miss) the mark
By Gregg Shapiro
Covered, A Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros. Records (Warner Brothers) is a 12- track disc that serves as both a companion piece to Revolutions in Sound: Warner Brothers Records—The First 50 Years, the splendid Warren Zanes coffee-table book commemorating the 50th anniversary of Warner Brothers Records, and a stand-alone tribute to the label. Bands and solo performers from the label’s current roster perform interpretations of classic WB tracks with an unexpected degree of success.
Mastodon and The Black Keys prove to be good matches for covers of songs by ZZ Top (“Just Got Paid”) and Captain Beefheart (“Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles”), respectively. Michelle Branch’s glorious reading of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” is nothing short of reverent, enhanced by a string section. Against Me! unplugs for a respectful rendition of The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” and out singer/songwriter Missy Higgins reimagines Roxy Music’s “More Than This” in an acoustic setting, unveiling the song’s folk side. James Otto does a fearless Van Morrison on “Into the Mystic,” while Adam Sandler brushed up on his Neil Young for his faithful performance of “Like a Hurricane.”
It’s at this point that the disc begins to lose impact. The label’s harder rocking acts, including Taking Back Sunday, The Used, Disturbed, and Avenged Sevenfold are let loose on classic tracks by Tom Petty, Talking Heads, Faith No More, and Black Sabbath with less than noteworthy attempts at fitting into the theme. Even The Flaming Lips (joined by Stardeath and White Dwarfs) lose something in the translation of their reinvention of Madonna’s “Borderline.”
Cover tunes are also the order of the day on War Child Presents Heroes: An Album to Benefit Children Affected by War (Astralwerks). Sixteen music icons were enlisted to select “a classic song from their catalog” and to “nominate” a new artist to record new versions for the disc. Queer artists such as Rufus Wainwright (performing a medley from Brian Wilson’s “Smile”), Scissor Sisters (doing Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand”) and Peaches (finding herself in Iggy Pop’s “Search and Destroy”) make memorable contributions to the set. Additional highlights include Elvis Costello’s “You Belong to Me” by The Like, David Bowie’s “Heroes” by TV On The Radio, Joy Division’s “Transmission” by Hot Chip, and The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” by Lily Allen with Mick Jones.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years since the initial release of Red Hot & Blue, the brilliant various artists benefit disc that functioned to increase awareness about HIV/AIDS and raise funds for research. In the years that followed, fundraising branch the Red Hot Organization continued to release a series of themed compilations that included dance, country, Latin, indie, African, Brazilian, and others. Dark Was the Night (4AD) is the latest in the series, and if there can be too much of a good thing, this compilation comes close. The “friends and peers” of Aaron and Bryce Dessner (of The National) came through in a big way, some contributing solo tracks, others teaming up (i.e. Grizzly Bear and Feist, Antony and Bryce Dessner, Dirty Projectors and David Byrne). The material is also top notch, ranging from originals to covers such as Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” The Handsome Family’s “The Giant of Illinois,” and even “Amazing Grace.” It’s great to have friends in high places for such a cause, but the addition of a few more out performers would have made this indispensable.
Essentially a gathering of ultra-hipster artists putting their distinctive touch on a series of pop hit singles, making them safe for consumption by their cooler-than-thou fans, Guilt By Association, Vol. 2 (Engine Room) picks up where the first volume left off, improving on the original. In addition to out guitar goddess Kaki King giving Justin Timberlake indie cred with her reading of “I Think She Knows,” standout tracks include Robbers on High Street taking on New Edition (“Cool It Now”), Cassettes Won’t Listen’s synth-job on INXS’ “Need You Tonight,” The Bloodsugars’ sweetening of Laura Branigan’s “Self-Control,” and Lowry’s take on “Africa” by Toto.
Narrowing the various-artists-compilation theme down a bit, Hollywood Mon Amour (The Perfect Kiss/PIAS) focuses on 16 movie theme songs reinterpreted by artists including Skye (of Moorcheeba fame), actress-turned-rock-star Juliette Lewis, Yael Naim, Cibelle, and others. The most indelible selections are the ones that not only revise the songs themselves, but also make you reconsider everything you might think about them. That occurs on “Cat People” by Dea Li, “Forbidden Colours” (from Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence ) and “Together in Electric Dreams” by Nadeah, and “Flashdance . . . What a Feeling” and “Footloose” by the aforementioned Naim and Cibelle, respectively.
The late singer, storyteller, and union champion Utah Phillips was a folk musician in the spirit of Woody Guthrie. Phillips counted Ani DiFranco among his greatest fans and they even collaborated on a CD in the mid-1990s. DiFranco is among the performers paying homage to Phillips on the well-timed double disc Singing Through The Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips (Righteous Babe). Others singing the praises (and songs) of Phillips include out duo Emma’s Revolution, Emmylou Harris and Mary Black, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Rosalie Sorrels, and Si Kahn, to name a few.
Gregg Shapiro is a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of GLBT performers.