Fifty-seven artists line-up semi-alphabetically to salute those affected by the Minneapolis bridge disaster last year.
One of the biggest fears I have at the moment is that I will judge the Musicians for Minneapolis album, a benefit for the I-35W bridge collapse, too harshly and suffer the same fate as its tribute subjects. I have an hour-long morning commute from Philadelphia to the suburbs to get to my job. The start of my ride involves traversing one of South Philadelphia's notoriously ill-kept bridges, which wobbles with heavy traffic flow and regularly logjams cars by way of the stoplights on each side. For the past week or so, I've sat in my car hovering over the Schuylkill River trying to find something good to say about this intensive collection of 57 songs from artists all over the world, hoping a few discriminating words won't be mistaken as a total reprobation of the cause.
Truth be told, when I heard the news of the I-35W Bridge incident, I was a bit relieved that the disaster claimed only a small number of casualties (13 of potentially hundreds). It made me feel a little more confident that I might perhaps make it out of such an incident alive were it to occur. Nevertheless, I remain undeniably tense on my morning commute thanks in no small part to the inevitabilities promised by Minneapolis's I-35W Bridge, the New Orleans levees, and the U.S.'s political indifference towards the massive New Deal-style public works project needed to reverse years of infrastructure deregulation, procrastination, and incompetence.
Like this hypothetical public works project, Musicians for Minneapolis: 57 Songs for the I-35W Bridge Disaster Relief Effort is an enormous undertaking. The three discs that comprise Musicians for Minneapolis are being released by Electro-Voice, which is not so much a record label as it is a professional audio equipment manufacturer. Despite their technologic namesake, Electro-Voice's compilers relied heavily on guitar-centric music for the tribute. One gets the impression that that the compilers found the unreleased Steve Vai track to be the tribute's ultimate catch, hence its appearance in coda as the final track of disc three.
Despite this six-string parochialism, the album takes a global rainbow approach to its sonics, providing an umbrella under which artists from all walks of life are welcome and perform side by side in -- get this -- an alphabetical-by-artist tracklisting.
Well, sorta. This self-regulating procedure is violated several times for what one can only speculate are reasons of continuity. Yet it still pits Terry Evans's gritty blues next to the psychedelic squeal of a very Syd Barrett sounding Faust (on perhaps the most commercial song in the band's history), which gives way to the upbeat ska of Fishbone. The dramatic and frequent stylistic shifts, which ebb and flow not only between genres but entire cultures of music listeners, beg the question: what the hell do any of these artists have in common beyond the fact that they all may have once crossed a bridge?
Surely, from a sales perspective, this album would do better had it been released on three separate discs pairing the most likeminded artists together. Most people skipping through the numbers on Musicians for Minneapolis won't be interested in roughly two CDs' worth of the material featured. It seems unlikely fans of the proto-nu-metal skronk of Helmet are going to "discover" the sentimentalist country ballads of Rockie Lynne, and vice versa. Maybe the compilers figured that support for the cause alone would move copies of the set off the shelves, and if they packed enough music onto it, most listeners would find something they liked.
Lynne's album opener, "The Chance to Say Goodbye", which was penned for this album, is a lurchingly saccharine tug for the heart strings, echoing the endless drippy requiems written in the wake of 9/11. But perhaps the clues to Musicians for Minneapolis's peculiar diversity lie in Lynne's verse, where he mourns the victims by cherishing their anonymity, suggesting that a tragedy like this could befall any of us, from any walk of life, of any musical persuasion.
Lynne's is not the only song in this package to deal with loss. If there is a thematic undertone to the lyrics of the work featured here, it's that of overcoming diversity, being dealt a blow and pushing through it. Spaced throughout the discs are verses like "As long as you're breathing / This'll get better", "I can't manage / The damage", "When I get to heaven / I'll be asking about you", and "There's got to be a better way / We try hard to keep it / Moving along". These sentiments offer little more than the equivalent of a nature poster with an inspirational quote on it in terms of encouragement, but it's hard to doubt that this version of philanthropy, the attempts to encapsulate loss in 4/4 time, especially among the local artists, is sincere.
Many of these songs come from oft-ignored enclaves of the musical critical complex: knee-slappin' bluegrass, public domain style pop-rock, anti-syncopation pop-country, folk muzak, inoffensive Barnes and Noble-style world music, lounge jazz, small-town rockabilly, and Christian rock. Still, much of it sounds apropos to music on an album produced by an audio equipment company. The sound is undeniably crisp, but more often than not the music sounds flat, the arrangements feel trite, and the lyrics are generally a hair short of obvious.
Unfortunately, the "established" artists rarely exceed these low standards. Nearly all of the recognizable names present plucked a tune off their latest disc and plopped it onto the album, passing that off as a contribution. Dick Dale even drags out a jangly surf-rock ditty that has been around for 46 years. One of the album's scarce new tracks is a collaboration between two of the most influential and batshit insane minds that ever put their brains to a mixing board, Lee "Scratch" Perry and George Clinton. What a rare opportunity this could have been had both of them not phoned it in.
And where are all the hometown heroes? Where is Prince? Bob Mould? Paul Westerberg? Tapes N' Tapes? If no b-sides were floating around, surely they too could be troubled to select a track of each of their most current albums and give it to a noble cause. If Dylan, formatively of the Twin Cities folk scene, can throw together a rarities disc for Starbucks, why not for folks who got trapped under thousands of tons of concrete?
Compilations of this sort are rarely the breeding grounds for experimentation and growth, but practically none of the artists here are in peak form. Howie Gelb and Calexico deliver their corresponding brands of the folk odyssey, but neither deliver much in terms of drama or reach. Red House Painters and Sun Kill Moon's Mark Kozelek delivers an adequately and suitably somber take on the pop standard "Send in the Clowns", but he doesn't work the same magic on it that he did on Red House Painters' recordings of Kiss's "Shock Me" and the Cars' "All Mixed Up". I guess we should just be thankful he didn't take on "Bridge Over Troubled Water".
Critters Buggin toss the 12 year old "Bill Gates" into the stew. It's fairly fun and wild, but the mix places too much emphasis on the vocals for the tribal drums and sax blurts to freak out as much they desire. Vocalist Doc Britton grasps the microphone like a radio announcer advertising the apocalypse, his megaphone spouting gibberish more insanely paranoid than Alex Jones's in Waking Life.
This is immediately proceeded by Gary Burger's even crazier nonsense in his collaborative update of the Monks' "Monk Time" with digital hardcore pioneer Alec Empire. The Iraq era-rendition doesn't have nearly the same force, not to mention the historical proto-punk singularity, of the song cut when Burger was an American G.I. stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. His classic jibe "James Bond, who is he?" is here transformed to "George Bush, who is he?" In this context, the Bush question seems to translate to "who does he think he is?" whereas the Bond version seems to reveal a kind of cultural revulsion, not to mention a proud obliviousness. Still, the new version probably scares the shit out of anybody looking for healing tomes in the midst of the surrealist anarchy Burger extols.
For others though, Burger's warfare is exactly what they need. Why strain the panic and confusion of recovery though with such an overall convoluted mess of a set? All the license plates adorning Musicians for Minneapolis's cover were more than likely listening to different radio stations when they crossed that bridge. Had they been incessantly tuning the dial back and forth though, we may have lost more of them.