[16 September 2008]
On the 2007, Satellite EP-only track “Timothy Leary”, Guster’s Ryan Miller sings, “One single voice makes a deafening sound”. Inspired perhaps by the LSD enthusiast for whom the song is named, the group manages to deliever a truism tailor-made for that most peculiar of recording species: the benefit album.
We’re in a moment when music and advocacy are more linked than perhaps any time in modern history, save the 1960s. See the evidence in the number and variety of artists who have flocked to the candidacy of Barack Obama, those who have spoken out/sung out for the crisis in Darfur, or the large-scale, global concerts championing the elimination of poverty and increased awareness of climate change. If ever there were an environment in which benefit CDs can thrive, it is upon us.
Rock the Net gives music consumers the opportunity to engage with a cause that could easily affect their daily lives: net neutrality. While certainly not as life-or-death as Darfur, the issues surrounding net neutrality are far easier to process for the average listener than the ethnic, political, or financial factors that often contribute to global dilemmas.
In short, net neutrality is (as the disc’s liner notes explain) “the principle that protects the open Internet. It means that everyone has the same level of access, and can upload and download the legal content of their choice without undue restrictions.” Should net neutrality be lost in a battle with “the big telecom companies,” the notes explain, “content providers” would be charged “a fee for faster delivery of their sites,” thus possibly causing a chasm between the haves and have-nots. Transferring the creativity of up-and-coming, not yet established artists to potential fans might then be hindered greatly.
Benefit albums can be wonderfully structured/promoted and, when they are, they serve as wonderful tools for raising awareness and dollars. But when they falter (at least, artistically), it is often due to the inherent challenge of matching an artist and song to a specific cause. Trying to stir up sufficient passion in an artist with little or no connection to the situation often leaves the benefit album, as well-intentioned as it may be, sounding overwrought or over-the-top.
With the nature of what’s being addressed, Rock the Net suffers no such problem. The album’s producers have selected a collective of artists, most indie darlings or critical favorites, who represent the type of artistic integrity and diversity that might be affected should the net neutrality battle be lost. The compilers do a wonderful job of planting a seed in the listener’s mind as to just what might be at stake.
The album’s diversity is shown in several ways, such as the inclusion of artists with varying levels of experience: veteran acts who have acheived some measure of commerical success (Wilco, They Might Be Giants) to indie stalwarts (David Bazan, Portastatic) and young, buzzworthy upstarts (Free Form Funky Freqs). There is definite musical diversity as well—finding a landing place are proven indie rock commodities like Aimee Mann, the dynamic jazz piano of Matthew Shipp Trio, African-flavored hip-hop from DJ Spooky, and even songs that are musically diverse in and of themselves (B.C. Camplight’s glorious “Soy Tonto”, which moves from bossa nova to New Wave synth rock and Polyphonic Spree-esque symphonic glee in three-and-a-half minutes).
Whether intentional or not, some great sequential moments also occur. The loquacious country-folk of Bright Eyes (“I Won’t Ever Be Happy Again”) kicks off the album, followed by melodic queen of restraint Mann (“31 Today”). DJ Spooky’s hip-hop collaboration with Saba Saba (“Uganda”) leads into Palomar’s slow-churning indie ballad “Red”. Other standout tracks include the Wrens’ “Sleep” and aformentioned appearances by Guster, B.C. Camplight, and Matthew Shipp Trio (“New Orbit”).
While it could seem self-serving for musicians to record and release a benefit to essentially save their own access to Internet markets, Rock the Net is a wonderful product that in multiple ways acknowledges just how great it is to discover quality music. It may not be the most pressing cause of 2008, but it’s one that this album can easily get listeners to rally behind. On the issue of net neutrality, these singular voices do come together to make a deafening sound.