In Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal we have 15 songs recorded by top rock stars and released in support of a worthy cause: to raise money for orphan children suffering in the chaos after the overthrow of the Romanian Communists. The project was organized by Olivia Harrison, so it’s no surprise to find her husband George leading off the record, along with the remaining Traveling Wilburys: Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. It’s the first song from their playful supergroup since the fifth and crowning Wilbury, Roy Orbison, died so unexpectedly.
How do the Wilburys sound now? As friendly and wry as ever — but also orphaned themselves, an amiable, fuzzy-voiced quartet bereft of Orbison’s irreplaceable silver tones. Luckily the song they sing — ”Nobody’s Child,” a sad old country tune (and very early Beatles B-side) that gives the album its title — actually gains extra resonance from the Wilburys’ loss.
What’s also noteworthy is that most of the tracks on this album are being released for the first time. Some (by Dave Stewart and Ric Ocasek, for example) were specially recorded for the project. Others (by Billy Idol, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Wonder, to name just three) are songs that never made it onto the artists’ albums. Still others are live performances, never available before except on bootlegs.
Not everything is exactly wonderful. Edie Brickell wanders aimlessly through a newly recorded lullaby. Mike + the Mechanics take a brave stab at a 1965 Marvin Gaye hit, ”Ain’t That Peculiar,” recorded live on David Letterman’s show, but they’re undone by lame backing from Letterman’s band.
But there are happier songs here, too. Nothing can dim Elton John’s vitality in ”Medicine Man,” an album outtake. The Bee Gees — in a 1989 live performance of their sentimental ‘71 smash ”How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” — sound cuddly enough to hug. Hard-rock bad boys Guns N’ Roses, finally, offer ”Civil War,” up to now available only on an import or on bootlegs. It’s a searing indictment of warfare, deepened by lead singer Axl Rose’s corrosive vocal edge. And that might be the biggest news on this album. Guns N’ Roses, a notoriously unstable band, may, if they pull themselves together, turn out to make far stronger music than their detractors ever expected.