Compilation CDs: Some smoke, some don’t
By their nature, compilation CDs – CDs with songs by a variety of artists – are up-and-down affairs. But record companies love them as promotional tools, squeezing in songs by lesser-known acts with songs by top hitmakers. And music fans must buy them, because they’re all over the place.Following are reviews of a few recent compilation CDs that have all the ups and downs you’d expect. “Hempilation 2: Free the Weed” (Capricorn) This CD, like the original “Hempilation: Freedom Is NORML” compilation from three years back, is a fund-raising project for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.The neat thing about both “Hempilation” compilations is just how dope-centric the projects are: All the songs, including all 20 on “Hempilation 2,” are very specifically dope-smoking songs. Great pro-pot songs from throughout the rock era – Little Feat’s “Don’t Bogart That Joint,” Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line” – are all represented here, though in new recordings done by different artists.The disc starts out with Everything doing their own new, trippy mostly instrumental tune, “Free to Choose.” With leadoff position on “Hempilation” in addition to their recent radio hit “Hooch,” Virginia’s Everything puts themselves at the top of the list of young bands praising the herb.Gov’t Mule’s reading of Humble Pie’s “30 Days in the Hole” smokes with a great vocal by Warren Haynes. Vic Chestnutt’s “Weed (to the Rescue)” is appropriately trippy, as is Mike Watts’ light-headed celebration of the water pipe, “Sidemousin’ the Bong.” (A free CD for the first person who lets me know just what “sidemousin’ the bong” is. I’ve done a few things with bongs in my time, but as far as I know, I’ve never sidemoused one.)The inclusion of some country smokers reveals that rock does not have an exclusive stranglehold on the music world’s weed. Hank Flamingo’s “The Dope Smokin’ Song” is flat-out country-funny: “We got high on the White House roof/And old Merle Haggard likes to smoke that hooch,” a perfect retort to old Merle’s anti-drug “Okie From Muskogee,” opens the song; “You sing the low part/And brother I’ll sing mine high” is the closing couplet. New Jersey’s From Good Homes, like Charlie Daniels before them, celebrates the joy of being a “Long Haired Country Boy.” And Willie Nelson, a stoner from way back, contributes a live version of “Me and Paul,” about his high-flying exploits with drummer Paul English.Not-so-high moments of “Hempilation 2” include George Clinton’s tired “U.S. Custom Coast Guard Dope Dog”; the Freddy Jones Band taking Traffic’s great “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and giving an uninspired performance; and the dreadful rendition of “High” by Jimmie’s Chicken Shack, which comes off like bad ’80s club music.Some other notable contributions: Spearhead doing “The Joker,” which has become a radio hit; the Long Beach Dub All-Stars with reggae singer Barrington Levy handling “Under Mi Sensi”; and Big Sugar doing Paul McCartney’s once-controversial “Let Me Roll It,” a song that has nothing to do with smoking dope.Just so folks realize that the merits of hemp don’t end with getting high, folkie Dar Williams sings of the environmental benefits of growing hemp in the political “Play the Greed,” and Chesnutt’s “Weed (to the Rescue)” is about how marijuana helps restore the physical feeling he mostly lost in a car accident 15 years ago. “Red Hot + Rhapsody: The Gershwin Groove” (Antilles) It is a wide variety of artists who turn out to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of songwriter George Gershwin in 1998 by redoing his work in a predominantly soft hip-hop/jazz style.Gershwin would doubtless be shocked at the idea of a reggaeish slant on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty of Nothin'”; Gershwin was long dead when reggae was given birth in the ’60s. But singer Finley Quaye’s relaxed take on the former – with a sample of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version – would likely have George smiling, not turning over, in his grave, and he could appreciate Spearhead’s deep, soft rap vocal on the latter.Sinead O’Connor demonstrates her broad vocal talents on a breathy version of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and Baaba Maal lends a distinctive African sound to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”Skye Edwards is brilliant with the soulful music she makes with her band Morcheeba, but her reading of “Summertime,” which opens this disc, is just so-so – clear and pretty, but a bit forced and overly slow. And it’s better than – and provides a stark contrast to – soul singer Bobby Womack’s take on the same number. Natalie Merchant is slightly bland on a very short “But Not For Me”; Duncan Shiek even more undistinguished on a limp version of “Embraceable You.”Singer-trumpeter Clark Terry does his best Tom Waits voice on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” The disc concludes with David Bowie and Angelo Badalamanti doing a sluggish duet reading of “Suite For a Foggy Day.””Red Hot + Rhapsody” is the latest in a series of “Red Hot” CDs to benefit the fight against AIDS. “AWARE 6: The Compilation” (AWARE Records) For some six years, the Chicago-based AWARE Records has been spreading the word on rising regional bands with these annual compilations. In its early years, AWARE hit some real gold mines, including songs by a number of bands – Better Than Ezra and Hootie & the Blowfish come most readily to mind – that went on to hugeness. Over its last several releases, AWARE has helped bands on to, for the moment, more modest successes.AWARE 6 is already putting the label back into the stratosphere. The disc opens with “Lullaby” by Atlanta singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, who has made his name over the past year with his distinctive, well-crafted acoustic-based folk-rock. Mullins also chips in with a second tune, “Gulf of Mexico.” Also with two tracks on the disc are the Greyboy All-Stars, whose jazz-funk is a departure from AWARE’s typical emphasis on pop-rock, but who have made a national reputation for themselves.Much of the material here could, with the right breaks, do very well on radio. Owsley’s “Homecoming Song” would fit in well on modern commercial stations. Rustic Overtones shows great diversity in their two tracks: the jazz-tinged mellow rock of the studio cut “Feast or Famine” and the more raucous live version of the horn-driven “Girl Germs.”Some of the artists, like Lackey, Blake Morgan and Cary Pierce (who appeared on the first AWARE CD as part of Jackopierce), don’t seem headed for much, absent a Hootie-esque fluke breakout.For those with a particular interest in what’s new out there on the rock landscape, AWARE is one of the better ways of finding out.
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