Stories like Darryl Hunt’s are perhaps the most persuasive arguments one can make against the death penalty, and indeed, against the American justice system as a whole. Hunt was perfunctorily tried and found guilty of a white woman’s rape and murder in 1984. He spent the next 20 years in prison—despite the fact that DNA evidence cleared him in 1994, a full decade before his release. It’s a shocking, but fascinating, story and served as the inspiration for an HBO documentary out in April.
The soundtrack to this documentary, composed and curated by Paul Brill, brings the story to musical life. It incorporates Brill’s own moodily atmospheric incidental music, soft indie rock tunes, and bracingly conscious hip hop. The disc offers some familiar older material—M. Ward’s “To Go Home” off of last year’s Post-War, an alternate take of Portastatic’s “You Blanks,” and Brill’s own haunting “Powerlines”—as well as some new songs, live performances, and unreleased demos.
Most of the cuts here aren’t actually in the movie, and some are only quite loosely tied to its themes. However, the standout tracks are largely songs that have been written expressly for the project, like Ras Kass’ “Not Guilty”. Kass’ cut is the only one to incorporate dialogue from the film: first the murder victim’s mother arguing for Hunt’s guilt and later, apparently, one of Hunt’s lawyers making a case for his innocence. Ambiguous? Not really. Over a cavernous, echoing beat, vertiginous string samples and a general feeling of ominousness, Kass lays down the soundtrack’s strongest statement: “I’m guilty / Until proven innocent”.
In general, the hip hop cuts by Dead Prez, the Last Poets, and Spider Loc, seem more serious and relevant than the indie rock tracks. Ras Kass spits out rhymes about black incarceration rates, Dead Prez touches on corporate ownership of prisons, Spider Loc murmurs about “You know the CEOs don’t want the revolution”. Indie rockers like Starsailor and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah seem only concerned with personal feelings, a bit light considering the context. Tim Rutili’s “Califone” bucks the trend with “Ladders,” an evocative murmur of mournful blues that fits seamlessly into themes of wrongs, injustice, and eventual redemption.
The disc’s first half is stronger than its second, and there are, necessarily, some jumps from genre to genre. However, overall, it’s a good listen. Moreover, proceeds from record sales go to the Darryl Hunt Project, an organization dedicated to helping wrongly convicted prisoners. All of which means that one reason to buy this CD is to ensure there will never be a sequel.