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Various Artists - Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 July 2007
format:    Downloads/16-bit CDs (2)
performance:    7.07
sound:    7.5
released:    2007
label:    Warner Bros.
reviewer:    Charles Andrews

ImageBefore I get too deep into this, allow me step up onto my soapbox, clear my throat and speak for those who have no voice.

Buy this album.

It’s 20 bills for the 34-song download, 14-15-maybe-17 bucks for the 23-cut two-disc set (both very reasonable), containing many outstanding songs, lots you’re familiar with, written by half of the greatest songwriting team ever, performed by an impressive roster of mostly outstanding artists. Listen to this collection a few times and many of the songs that didn’t grab you on first listen will begin to reveal their worth. You may even fall in love with it. I think I am. (Blame the relatively low “Performance” score above on averaging, and Avril.)

I wouldn’t advocate buying a crappy album no matter what its good intentions (and there have been a few of those), but the aspirations here are worthwhile and urgent. If you know nothing of the horror that’s been going on in the Darfur region of Sudan the last few years, the notes inside this Amnesty International-sponsored release will give you some brief, broad idea. To know more, even just the basics, google “Darfur.”

Or check out the handful of associated videos available on YouTube. Especially moving is Green Day’s “Working Class Hero,” which features Sudanese refugees speaking briefly, quietly, heart-wrenchingly of what’s going on in their homeland. Also affecting is the one led off by Yoko which features children from around the world singing a line or two each of “Imagine.” Actor Don Cheadle puts in a pitch for students to once again serve as the world’s conscience, and activists for change. The Jack Johnson vid is freaky; Yellow Submarine-type graphics with animation float in and out behind his sweet singing of “Imagine,” but when you start to catch what’s going on in there, there are some disturbing images. Appropriately disturbing.
The bottom line is that hundreds of thousands have already died from savage militia campaigns, and millions – millions – are displaced and in danger of death from malnutrition and disease, as you read this. It’s stoppable if the world will find its conscience and raise its voice, and sales of this album can greatly aid that, as well as raising money for the cause. None of the artists involved are being compensated (materially).

Of course, none of it would have happened without the permission and backing of John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, who controls his estate and catalogue. Whatever you may think of her as an artist and/or a person, she says that this is exactly the sort of cause John would have championed if he were still alive, and that’s why she gave permission to Amnesty International for the use of John’s entire solo catalogue, of course featuring the signature anthem “Imagine,” which has been named time after time worldwide as one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century.

So it’s a landmark, it’s a bargain, and it’s really good music you won’t find anywhere else. There are millions of people in the Darfur region living every day in abject fear, who can only pray that the rest of the privileged world will notice their plight, raise their voices and put an end to it. Chances are you’re not the leader of a major nation, not even a celebrity with media exposure, but you can make a difference.

Buy this album.

I love “various artists” albums, especially the ones where everyone is covering another artist’s catalogue, because no matter the quality or smile factor, you usually learn something.

You learn something about the performers on the album – how they are or aren’t willing to subjugate themselves to outside material, how they manage or don’t to imprint their own signature over the original, just how imaginative and authentic their artistic vision is. I remember one of the earlier collections, a tribute in the late ‘80s to Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, where even renditions by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Little Richard with Fishbone did not throw either singer/songwriter out the window the way Brian Wilson’s jarring Beach Boys wall-of-sound treatment of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” (though LB himself copped to learning the song from his uncle) turned things upside-down, and stood out from all the rest.

And that’s the other thing you learn from these compilations: surprising things about the songs themselves. Wilson’s “Goodnight Irene” is a great example. Though the chestnut had already been around for decades when Lead Belly popularized it in the ‘40s, and was subsequently covered by all sorts of performers, what’s usually hidden in the pop treatment is what a dark, foreboding scenario the real lyrics can conjure up. The “Goodnight Irene” chorus is usually sweetly, nostalgically crooned (my mother Irene loved it and considered it her song), but Wilson was the first I’d ever heard (or paid enough attention to) who dug out some older version that threatened “If Irene turns her back on me/I'm gonna take morphine and die,” and “I wished to God I’d never seen your face/I’s sorry you ever was born.” Most shockingly, the hopelessly romantic notion that “I’ll see you in my dreams” was originally “I’ll get you in my dreams.” Yikes. Shades of that tender modern ballad/huge hit where everyone sang along without thinking about the words to “Every Breath You Take.”

“Goodnight Irene” even starts out of the gate telling you this guy is split from the woman he married less than a week ago, and is now wandering the
streets downtown (looking for her? to make nice, or … ?), and there’s a hint that his obsession Irene may not be the same woman he just married. Then he reveals, “Sometimes I have a great notion/to jump into the river and drown,” and that seems to get glossed over too. How about this verse that usually gets omitted: “You cause me to weep, you cause me to mourn/you cause me to leave my home/But the very last words I heard her say/was ‘please sing me one more song’." Sounds like some twisted, dying request.

Ry Cooder (on his great Chicken Skin Music album, 12 years before Wilson’s take and possibly his inspiration), Van Morrison (with Lonnie Donegan on his excellent 1998 The Skiffle Sessions disc) and Steve Earle (seemingly only live) also sang versions with “alternate” lyrics, but it was Beach Boy Brian’s spin on it that spun me around. There’s nothing that dramatic here on Instant Karma, but still lots to surprise and delight. I found myself playing a game as I ran through the songs: who seems to be capturing Lennon’s original intent (and who’s completely clueless? – see exhibit A/Avril Lavigne), who actually improves on the originals, who throws it out the window and does their own thing, and … who decided who sang what?

I can’t figure out from all my research who that might be. There are lots of producers, but no one overseer named. Considering that the intention to raise as much money and consciousness as possible would dictate using some contemporary artists and especially some that would appeal to a younger crowd, still … Avril Lavigne? And if you must, why hand her the premier song you’ve denied others for decades? And after you heard her recording and realized she didn’t have the dimmest idea what this anthemic song, nearly sacred to so many, is about, why not ease her over to another song? It’s the ugly red pimple in the middle of the forehead of this otherwise shining effort, and someone should’ve popped it.

The Internet public is rapidly registering their likes and dislikes, and of course one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Following is brief commentary on each of the 23 songs on the hard copy double-disc set I bought, but I finally gave up trying to track down and listen to all the cuts available everywhere, or even figure out all the combinations. Besides the 23- and 34-song versions I first mentioned, if you use your American Express card you get a bonus disc with six exclusive extra songs (or the six extras on your download), including two more “Imagine”s, one by Josh Groban that’s at least several clues past Avril, and another by Afroreggae which sounds slightly promising. If you go to the Warner Bros. Records site, there seems to be a whopping additional 23 recordings beyond the 23, the 34, and the AmX extra six, but when you try to buy them or even find out anything more about them, you’re directed to the iTunes store, and they’re nowhere to be found. From samples, Duran Duran’s “Instant Karma” sounds like a disaster, but the Deftones’ “Jealous Guy” is probably terrific, and I love the pure country pedal-steel treatment Widespread Panic gave the bouncy “Crippled Inside.” Willie Nelson does “Imagine” too … somewhere, out in the ether. Saw it, couldn’t hear it. (For the best song-by-song credits go to

One last note before the rundown below: the “Performance” score at the top of the review is an odd decimal because I took the average of all the individual 23. The “Sound” score (see below) was a ballpark figure, since each song was individually produced.

Disc 1
1. U2: “Instant Karma” – drops the ball a little on the opening song, bringing nothing special to the title cut. Performance: 7.5

2. REM: “#9 Dream” – one of the best here, simply sumptuous. Michael Stipe’s singing is superb and completely heartfelt, and the band is equally deft and imaginative. Making something beautiful of endless repetitions of “Ah! b'wakawa pouss?, pouss?” is a true test. I think John Would Approve. Performance: 9.5

3. Christina Aguilera: “Mother” – somewhat surprisingly, maybe the best job period, though my admiration for her has been steadily growing. A tough lyric to handle emotionally, she rides it from tender pain to a soulful climax, with just enough toned-down church-style vocal acrobatics. JW definitely A. Performance: 10

4. Aerosmith, featuring Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars: “Give Peace a Chance” – this unlikely teaming of the still-screaming rock bad boys and the angelic-singing Africans transforms this classic example of Lennon’s chanting style of songwriting into something more interesting. Steven Tyler style transforms the verses and the African beat is cool, as is the little MC rap in the middle. If only the SLRAS didn’t sound like they were singing “Aww Ree Ah Saying …” – it’s distracting. Performance: 8

5. Lenny Kravitz: “Cold Turkey” – it’s getting bashed a lot, but go back and listen to the original; its ugly lyric theme is matched by an abrasive arrangement, and Kravitz did an excellent job of creating his own hellish version of hard drug withdrawal that’s more listenable than John’s, and his vocal and instrumental treatment effectively takes you to a junkie’s hell. Still not going to make many iPods, though. Performance: 4.5

6. Los Lonely Boys: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” – I’ll say it: Los LB are just boring. What do people see in them? Their “Whatever” couldn’t get me through any night. Performance: 5.5

7. Corrine Bailey Rae: “I’m Losing You” – recorded live with just an electric piano – good, because she is. Performance: 8.5

8. Jakob Dylan featuring Dhani Harrison: “Gimme Some Truth” – echoes of the voice of Bob and the weeping sliding guitar of George make for an especially poignant rendering. Performance: 9

9. Jackson Browne: “Oh, My Love” – flat. John’s is way better. Performance: 6

10. Avril: “Imagine” – skip. Performance: -1

11. Big & Rich: “Nobody Told Me” – the one I’d pick as being closest to John’s originally recorded intent, and that even improves most on it, is from the “country” duo who deliver the cryptically political lyrics with the same spirit of fun John put across. JWA. Performance: 9

12. Youssou N’Dour: “Jealous Guy” – odd, beautiful treatment, partly in N’Dour’s native tongue, mainly strummed guitars and an overriding bongo-type drumbeat, his accent reminding us that the emotional shortcomings New York John confessed to are universal to every continent. JWA. Performance: 9

Disc 2
1. Green Day: “Working Class Hero” – leads off second disc just kicking ass and getting it absolutely right, acoustic to rockin’ to smokin’. Is that John’s voice on the tail end? Or a good simulation? Touching/chilling, either way. JWA. Performance: 9

2. Black Eyed Peas: “Power to the People” – give ‘em credit for taking on a politically very dated song and trying something different, give ‘em nasty lumps for how very badly it sucks. Performance: 1

3. Jack Johnson: “Imagine” – lovely, but still lacks the requisite soul. Joan Baez did a gorgeous version years ago – but she’s not on the charts these days. Performance: 8.5

4. Ben Harper: “Beautiful Boy” – not as beautiful as I had hoped, from as versatile a performer as Harper. Performance: 8

5. Snow Patrol: “Isolation” – pretty, nice arrangement, ultimately cold. Performance: 6.5

6. Matisyahu: “Watching the Wheels” – reggae arrangement is perfect for this song, but Yahu’s modern dub style here lacks soul, and he missed the point of one of Lennon’s most interesting personal statements nearly as completely as Miss A. Performance: 3

7. Postal Service: “Grow Old with Me” – somebody stop me – no? Well, they did mail it in. It would put me to sleep if it weren’t so irritating, and there’s not a clue this is a John Lennon song. Performance: 4

8. Jaguares: “Gimme Some Truth” – move over, Bob and George Jrs, but these Mexican dudes rock the hell out of this and channel John and know just when to get upset from the words they’re singing. JWA. Performance: 9

9. Flaming Lips: “(Just Like) Starting Over” – aces, all around. Perfect example of “getting” the original and making it your own. JWA. Performance: 9.5

10. Jack’s Mannequin featuring Mick Fleetwood: “God” – I can’t even remember this band’s name the moment I’ve finished typing it but guess what? Whoever Andrew McMahon is, on piano and vocals in front of Mick’s drums, he stepped up in the All-Star game, took a tough pitch, and hit a home run. Find the video. JWA. Performance: 9

11. Regina Spektor: “Real Love” – just when I’m questioning how much I should love this New York Russian chanteuse or am I just sucked in by her quirkiness that will finally become irritating and an embarrassment, she steps into this impressive venture fraught with high expectations and closes it out with one of the best of the lot. And she does it by going entirely her own way, further from the Lennon version than almost anyone. But JW definitely A. God, I love the way she sings “doin’” – how can one little word, missing, even, 20 per cent of its letters, say so much? Performance: 9.5

The “sound” score (see above) was a ballpark figure, since each song was individually produced.

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