This album is Erik Hillestad's attempt at humanizing the citizens of not just Bush's big three but also Palestine, Cuba, Afghanistan, and Syria.
With a title like that, you know this album is going to wear its ample political baggage on its sleeve. The ironically-deployed "Axis of Evil", of course, is the odious term Bush used in his first post-9/11 State of the Union, and it refers specifically to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, but -- using G-Dub's pathologically fucked-up logic -- can be extended to include all nations who harbor "terrorism", which means anything the Administration wants it to mean. Erik Hillestad, the Norwegian compiler behind Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, doesn't think that's very nice, slapping the "evildoer" tag on hundreds of millions of people like that -- most of whom probably are not evil. This album is his attempt at humanizing the citizens of not just Bush's big three but also Palestine, Cuba, Afghanistan, and Syria. Since the album is comprised of 15 lullabies, all sung by females in their native tongues, it's also Hillestad's way of striking a blow for feminism in the aforementioned countries: in many of them, it is illegal for a woman to sing in public. There's no doubt the album's concept is an ambitious, grandly universal one; Hillestad spent several months bouncing around the globe while recording the vocal tracks. But, as is often the case with ambitious, grandly universal concepts, the end result never coheres.
One of the reasons is the lullaby form itself, which is designed to make 10-month-old babies stop their damn crying and zonk out for a couple hours. The crack studio band backs nearly every song with gentle or no percussion, pillowy-soft keyboard chords, and twinkly guitarpeggios (providing the album a much-needed track-to-track constancy). It's all very pretty. But even the band seems to get bored playing pretty songs for infants -- the funk-inflected "Lalolalo" and the power-pop "Nami" are two of the best songs here. In fact, I'd argue that these up-tempo, catchier dance numbers better meet Hillestad's stated goal of humanizing the Eastern singers here -- what's more humanizing than musically-expressed joy?
Speaking of Hillestad's goal, on all but two of the songs on Lullabies, the Axis of Evil singer is paired with a Western, female, English-singing counterpart. Aside from being a cynical gambit at humanizing the former ("If they sing on the same songs as us, maybe they aren't so different from us after all!"), the main drawback to this strategy is musical: aside from Lila Downs on "Lalolalo", none of the Western ladies can keep up. Some of them are, in fact, awful (Nina Hagen, aaarrrggghhh). Worse yet, they're all singing translated versions of songs whose lyrics you don't particularly care to ever know. They're lullabies, for hey-zeus sake; "Soft as cotton / Sweet as roses / Is how I see my baby / That's why I'm always singing" is about as deep as any of them get lyrically.
Right, the English singers (who include Rickie Lee Jones and former Moby collaborator Mimi) are Hillestad's goal of extending an olive branch from the Western world those we've oppressed. Right, they display how "the cultures of the earth meet each other", as Hillestad writes in the liner notes. But I still question their value. One of the joys of listening to what record companies call world music is trying to infer the emotions behind languages and songforms you'll never understand completely. The more you listen, the more the exotic vocal cadences accrue a sense of familiarity -- call it universal appeal, by golly. I don't want to get overly dramatic -- or, worse, risk sounding like a purist -- but there's palpable pain and longing in the voices of Iraqi singer Halla Bassam and Palestinian singer Jawaher Shofani. Hillestad's heart was certainly in the right place with this album. If only he had let the Axis of Evil speak for itself.