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Review: Heroes- War Child

Charity albums are strange beasts. Most of them are unlistenable chunks of celebrity while others are curious if not flawed attempts at genuine inspiration. They generally sell on the premise that people want to feel good about themselves but also don't just like giving away money for nothing. So much of the time charity albums get purchased by people who don't really intend to listen to them. That's what makes War Child Presents: Heroes such an interesting case. It's fairly high-concept for a charity CD. Instead of mashing together as many big names as possible, War Child decided to approach some respected elder statespeople of music and ask them to select a current artist to cover one of their songs. This makes it possibly the first charity album to ever have street cred attached. But beyond that initial intrigue and the fact that War Child is a really excellent organization, is Heroes really worth a listen? The album opens with Beck's cover of Bob Dylan's absurdist extravaganza "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat". For those keeping track of Beck's many iterations, this cover falls into his relatively recent busy, fuzzy, fussy style. I guess Dylan couldn't have picked a better artist to represent his silly side. The song is a good opening number. It's fun and it's modern, plus it passes the litmus test of all cover songs. Johnny Cash can be quoted as saying of covers, "If I can't make the song my own, I've got no business playing it" and that's about the long and short of cover music in general. Beck succeeds in this case, but the rest of the album is spotty in that regard. What follows is The Kooks covering "Victoria" by The Kinks, which is about as redundant as that sounds. It's not that it's not appropriate or that the song isn't played competently, it's just that it's so darn obvious. The Kooks play good party rock, but they don't really have their own sound. That's their thing, throwback rock. I just wish "Victoria" was a little more adventurous. In that department, The Hold Steady cover Springsteen's "Atlantic City". I've never been much of a fan of The Boss's make-pretend blue collar ballads, so my enjoyment of this cover is naturally limited. To the credit of The Hold Steady, they almost made me like the song. As is the case with a lot of the tracks on Heroes, the cover artists have to contend with content that is, in some way, below them. The first really interesting track on the album is Hot Chip's cover of "Transmission" by Joy Division. Heck, an entire album could be made of crappy Joy Division covers alone, so it's great to hear a group that manages to do something interesting and not instantly blasphemous with an iconic song. Hot Chip doesn't attempt to capture the frenetic grind of the original nor do they try to approach Ian Curtis's intensity. Instead, the track plays like a glitchy, respectful homage. Following that is the album's high point. Lily Allen and Mick Jones cover The Clash's "Straight to Hell". It's no small feat to make a song about post-Vietnam Imperialism in Asia sound relevant to a modern-day cause concerned with the likes of Iraq and Darfur, but Allen and Jones pull it off splendidly. A lot of this success is thanks to Lily Allen's performance. In short, she's not trying to do a Joe Strummer impression. The production on the track is superb and it doesn't feel overly slick. This song could stand on its own as a single. The rest of Heroes doesn't really approach those heights, though. It's often overly rocky and aside from Franz Ferdinand covering Blondie's "Call Me" it's all pretty forgettable. Rufus Wainwright does a good if not predictable Beach Boys cover, but it's generally out of place on this otherwise high-energy album. There's an oddball cover of a not-so-good Roxy Music song by The Scissor Sisters, though to their credit they make it just a touch better, even if it's still not very good. The oddness continues with Adam Cohen covering his father Leonard's "Take This Waltz" and deciding to sing it in Spanish. That's something I just don't understand. Leonard Cohen's songs are always half about the lyrics. Why those nuances would be taken from the song are beyond me. Elbow gets to do their own take on U2's "Running To Stand Still" and it's shockingly obvious that Bono's bad lyrics are below an otherwise clever Elbow. The album closes out with TV On The Radio covering the title track, David Bowie's Heroes. It's interesting enough, even if it is a little too hazy and glitchy. The question I ask myself about projects like War Child Presents: Heroes is, would anyone actually want to listen to this? Most of it is an exercise in sub-par homages to good songs, the lowest points are just downright irritating, and there are at least one or two genuinely interesting moments. My suggestion is that you skip this album, download Lily Allen and Mick Jones's track, then send some money straight to War Child.