Various Artists – Graciously, A Gulf Relief Compilation

Various Artists
Graciously, A Gulf Relief Compilation

Reviewing benefit albums feels like a slightly duplicitous endeavour. On the one hand you could just say “buy it purely for altruistic reasons, artistic quality comes second” to make your conscience feel clearer and non-obstructive to the charitable cause in question. There of course, you could corrupt your trade by hyping-up a half-baked confection, so you might feel better saying “this is rubbish; give your dough directly to the charity”. With these twin impulses impinging on this writer’s already over-thought critiquing process, approaching this compilation (sold in aide of the Hurricane Katrina victims of New Orleans) held a certain quotient of trepidation. Thankfully, it’s a relief to report that the bulk of Graciously is generously laden with goodwill and gusto. Importantly, the dependable suspects deliver exclusive tracks that don’t have “B-Side” or “scraping the barrel” written all over them. Moreover, the less reliable – as well as lesser-known characters – contribute meritable material.

Collecting tracks from the recorded overspill of Tucson, Arizona’s well-respected Wavelab Studios, certainly helps the 12 tracks of Graciously to gel together, aesthetically-speaking. Wavelab’s raw, warm and spacious studio treatments overcome problems of diverging production values – the usual obstacle to cohesion on multi-artist collections. But the medium is, of course, less vital than the content; therefore it’s also a good thing that so many of the contributing artists pull some special stuff out of their collective bag of unreleased goodies.

Thus a stripped-down trio track from Calexico – “Griptape Heart” – is as joyously soaring and earthy as any of the group’s best album cuts. Regular Wavelab engineer and serial collaborator, Nick Luca, delivers a crunching and apt alt-rock stomper – featuring the pertinent cry of “Politics means nothing when you’re lying in the grave” – that’s better than anything on his new album, Sick of Love. Richmond Fontaine’s Buffalo Tom-meets-Son Volt country-rocker, “The Gits”, is surprisingly stirring, at least in comparison to the band’s usually turgid fare. Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Wish I Was Doing This” is endearingly eccentric, with its unconscious Syd Barrett-like streak of English pop-psychedelia. Meanwhile, Steve Wynn’s string-soaked “Riverside” echoes Nick Cave at his most ragingly epic. In-between the “big-hitters”, the relatively-unknown Amelia White offers the folk-rock shimmer of “Skeleton Key” with a gutsy twang and the equally unfamiliar Tony Furtado tips in a wistful soulful ballad (almost) worthy of Mark Mulcahy.

Amidst the slew of new/unreleased songs, comes a fine triumvirate of imaginative cover versions. Erstwhile X-man John Doe deposits a delightfully doleful bluesy reading of Lennon & McCartney’s “Baby’s In Black”. “Moon River” gets an alluring pedal steel and marimba-driven instrumental re-interpretation from the early-90s archives of the Friends of Dean Martinez. Top of the class though, is the manic medley of “I Want Candy/I Know What Boys Want/Who Do You Love/Not Fade Away” from Howe Gelb and Scout Niblett, complete with monster-sized drums, cocktail-jazz piano, gnarly guitars and a boisterous school-kids choir.

So there you go; a must-investigate compilation, that’s high in moral fibre and drenched in exuberant playfulness. “Journalistic integrity-protection” comes as an unexpected bonus…