[29 March 2009]
Charity albums are often an excuse for pretty average music to be elevated to some kind of unearned cultural significance—the fact that it’s for a worthy cause overrules any musical under-achievement.
A charity album of cover versions is a double whammy. The result of listening to a CD of covers is usually to return to the originals and rediscover their original appeal. Fortunately, this has rarely been the case with the War Child compilation series. The quality of the covers means every album in the series can be taken on its own merit.
For the latest instalment in the series, 15 ultimate icons were asked to select a song from their own back catalogues—and choose a new act to cover it. Some of these icons selected, appropriately, war-themed tracks; others chose forgotten gems that have been freshly interpreted. As with the previous War Child albums, the songs included on Heroes usually hit the mark, occasionally just miss it—but nevertheless result in an interesting listen.
Ok, so first, the not-so-good: “Superstition”, the Stevie Wonder funk classic, is reinterpreted (kind of) by Estelle. It does the job, but kinda ends up sounding like a missed opportunity. And then Beck takes Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde highlight “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, beefs it up with ground-shaking guitars and a handful of handclaps, and makes it, well, very Beck. Which is no bad thing essentially, but it’s nothing spectacular.
Possibly the most eagerly anticipated of the covers, after the tracklisting was revealed pre-release, was Lily Allen’s take on the Clash’s “Straight to Hell”. The Clash’s version was never as potent on record as it was live: similarly, Allen’s version is in her own inmitable style—and it’s precisely this that proves its undoing. A song about soldiers in the field, the original’s spine-chilling honesty and gritty meaning is lost—and even the appearance of Mick Jones on the track doesn’t save it.
The Clash’s contemporaries chose Franz Ferdinand to cover “Call Me”—and they do so in typical Franz Ferdinand style. Like the Kooks’ cover of the Kinks’ “Victoria” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ take on “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker”, it sticks pretty faithfully to the original, albeit with a 21st-century sheen, the odd tweak and completed with effervescent guitars. At the opposite end of the scale, TV On The Radio reinterpret David Bowie’s “Heroes”—and though it sounds nothing like Bowie’s version, it still manages to maintain its spirit.
All great, but it’s up to Elbow, though, to provide the album’s real highlight. Their truly affecting cover of U2’s “Running To Stand Still” is infinitely better than the original, turning it into an aching lament to heroin, without the stadium pomposity that has tainted any of U2’s softer moments. With a mournful harmonica and Guy Garvey’s tender vocals, it’s actually a song better suited to Elbow than its composers.
So the War Child series continues. Though it still has yet to serve up a full offering of duff tracks, its reputation remains intact. This collection of covers largely matches, if not betters, the original versions. Those “ultimate icons” must be kicking themselves.