Pop fads rarely get more curious than the current wave of tribute albums — remakes of standards by both established and up-and-coming rockers. Red Hot & Blue, a collection of Cole Porter reinterpretations by everyone from white-soul diva Lisa Stansfield to oddball singer-songwriter Tom Waits, fits squarely into this trend.
But it has much loftier goals. Proceeds from sales of the album go toward AIDS groups. [On Nov. 14, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKKLY will sponsor a salute in Hollywood to the makers of Red Hot & Blue and their commitment to the fight against AIDS.] The choice of Porter’s giddy, jaunty ’30s and ’40s love songs is itself meant as a comment on the safe-sex era. We’re supposed to listen to these versions and feel nostalgic for — and angry about — the demise of the romantic era in which Porter lived and wrote. But picking a cause is one thing; deciding whether these songs should be treated as camp classics or masterworks of pop craft is another. Despite its good intentions, Red Hot & Blue doesn’t address that problem.
The 20-track album opens boldly with Neneh Cherry’s stark, bass-line- propelled take on ”I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” in which the words have special urgency because, in Cherry’s revision, the song begins with a rap about AIDS. Other artists hit similar pay dirt by taking different liberties with songs: The Jungle Brothers do a sly rap version of ”I Get a Kick Out of You,” David Byrne turns ”Don’t Fence Me In” into a Cajun romp, and the Thompson Twins transform ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” into the most martini-dry form of techno-pop. Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop swagger through ”Well, Did You Evah!” like aging New Wavers on the Borscht Belt circuit — which, come to think of it, isn’t that far from what they really are.
None of these will set the world afire, but at least they sound natural. The same can’t be said, though, for much of the rest of the album. Sinéad O’Connor tries to go chanteuse on ”You Do Something to Me” and exposes the thinness of her voice; Aaron Neville croons on the Neville Brothers’ ”In the Still of the Night” as if he were the next Johnny Mathis. U2 and k.d. lang add self-important melodrama to ”Night and Day” and ”So in Love,” respectively. And on Fine Young Cannibals’ ”Love for Sale,” Ro-land Gift sings as if he’d ingested helium.
Throughout all of this, we’re too distracted for any point to be conveyed. Aside from Cherry’s rap, the personal impact of the AIDS crisis emerges only on ”From This Moment On,” with its creamy, desperate wail by Jimmy Somerville, former lead singer of Bronski Beat and one of pop’s few openly gay artists. When Somerville wraps his sirenlike voice around Porter’s sorrowful lyrics, we feel both the allure of romance and its loss; the song becomes universal and moving. Red Hot & Blue is a mixed bag: It’s often more interesting to contemplate the matchups of singer and song than it is to actually hear them. But you can’t argue with the cause. B-