Charity should, in an ideal world, be its own reward. For those of us who fall somewhere between Gandhi and Scrooge McDuck on the giving continuum, however, there are happy mediums — like the benefit CD. In the case of two new releases, Dark Was the Night and War Child Presents Heroes, the recipients are certainly worthwhile, and the artists included are a veritable gym-class roll call of contemporary alt favorites, including TV on the Radio, Lily Allen, Cat Power, Beck, Duffy, Spoon, My Morning Jacket, and Bon Iver.
Dark, a two-disc set of previously unreleased originals and covers from the long-running AIDS awareness organization Red Hot, reveals its roots in the title: ”Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” is one of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson’s signature songs. Many of the artists clearly take to the idea of channeling early American music, whether it be bone-deep spirituals or raucous front-porch sing-alongs. Feist and Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard’s duet on ”Train Song” is a spare, sorrowful hymn to loss, while Cat Power and My Brightest Diamond, who cover, respectively, ”Amazing Grace” and the swaggering jazz burner ”Feeling Good,” do so with faithful, if slightly too safe, acuity.
Some, like Andrew Bird, My Morning Jacket, and the New Pornographers, simply enjoy the place where their styles intersect with the disc’s theme. Others take the opportunity to go buck wild stylistically: Sufjan Stevens’ 10-minute epic ”You Are the Blood” sounds like the soundtrack to a postmodern vampire’s feeding frenzy. Of 31 tracks, a few inevitably feel like throwaways; overall, though, it’s a satisfying smorgasbord, and a nice fix for fans waiting on new records from indie stars like Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo, and the Decemberists.
Heroes’ idea is more sharply focused: Let a host of musical giants, including Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder, handpick artists from a younger generation to tackle a classic of theirs. It sounds kind of amazing — in theory, at least. Unfortunately, many of said giants’ choices are so clearly acolytes of the originals that Heroes often comes off like well-produced karaoke. The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn basically sounds like Springsteen with a head cold on the Boss’ ”Atlantic City”; British upstarts the Kooks may share consonants with the Kinks, but their take on ”Victoria” is faithful to the point of redundancy. The ones who fare best aren’t afraid to tip these sacred cows: Scissor Sisters turn Roxy Music’s ”Do the Strand” into a disco trip — more strobe-light boogie than louche rock opera. U.K. electronic outfit Hot Chip transform Joy Division’s chilly ”Transmission” into a woozy underwater dreamscape; retro-soul songbird Duffy’s version of Macca’s ”Live and Let Die” peels back the bombast to reveal a stripped-down, Motown-style lullaby, while TV on the Radio propel David Bowie’s elegant title track into pure, fuzzed-up energy: urgent and thrillingly chaotic. There are, it turns out, more sincere — and far more intriguing — forms of flattery than imitation. Heroes: B
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