EW reviews three hurricane relief albums
Knocking a Katrina benefit record is a bit like serving bald-eagle burgers at your next barbecue; it's an excellent way to peg yourself as not only a poor patriot, but a pretty crappy human being. That said, there are critical differences between three new big-name benefits ranging from Most Authentic (Our New Orleans), Most Star- Studded (Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now), and the one we like to think of in our own Goldilocks way as Just Right (Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert).
The latter succeeds best because it's a cohesive recording. Taped at a live event this past Sept. 17 at New York City's Lincoln Center, and spearheaded by Big Easy native Wynton Marsalis, Higher Ground is, above all, a class act. No surprises, true, but also no bathos and no coasting; just a seamless slow dance between Terence Blanchard (an elegiac ''Over There''), James Taylor (the winsome ''Never Die Young''), Shirley Caesar (the gospel celebration ''This Joy''), and other pop and jazz luminaries, from Norah (Jones) to Neville (Art and Aaron).
Come Together Now certainly covers the Various in its artists: The list includes Kanye West, Faith Hill, Dave Matthews, Coldplay, Barbra Streisand, and why not? Robert Downey Jr. Louis Armstrong's lovely rendition of ''Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?'' beautifully starts off the double-disc set mostly live recordings, new compositions, and previously unreleased versions of classics but the ensuing gumbo of 80-plus participants is only intermittently digestible. For every solid track (Rod Stewart's take on ''People Get Ready,'' Coldplay's in-concert ''Fix You''), there's a too-treacly feel-good (who needs an all-star ''Tears in Heaven''?). While the generosity of the artists and labels is admirable (100 percent of net proceeds go to relief efforts), at times it feels more like a kitchen-sink telethon than an organic listening experience.
Our New Orleans is certainly more focused; N'awlins mainstays like Dr. John, Irma Thomas, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band channel the very voice of the city by rerecording hometown classics. Numbers like ''Backwater Blues'' and ''Brother John'' are handled with ease and grace, if not innovation, by old pros.
Then again, innovation is hardly the point here, is it? The album serves as a gratifying reminder of how valid New Orleans' artistic contributions were, and are and why the city and its people deserve to be saved. Come Together Now: B Higher Ground: A- Our New Orleans: B+