Various Artists – War Child Presents Heroes & Dark Was the Night

Whatever goodwill most benefit albums acquire through their altruism, they tend to blow on inappropriate covers, hookless B-sides and other inessential tunes. Music fans looking to get charitable would be better off donating directly to their pet cause and getting on with their day.

At least War Child Presents Heroes has a decent concept. Rather than having today’s biggest bands pick which song they’d like to butcher, Heroes has yesterday’s legends choosing which outfit they’d like to see take on their masterpieces. The perennially hip David Bowie lends the title track to TV on the Radio, who lend it all the drama, drive and atmosphere you’d expect. The Hold Steady — long plagued by Springsteen comparisons — naturally hold their own on The Boss’s “Atlantic City,” and the orchestration-obsessed Rufus Wainwright is undoubtedly qualified to tackle Brian Wilson’s Smile suite. The only trouble is that there aren’t many surprises — none of these versions are going to radically change how you hear the original, or how you see the artists involved.

4AD’s Dark Was the Night compilation, a fundraiser for AIDS awareness, doesn’t have such a grand concept. There are some inspired covers — Antony taking on Bob Dylan, say — and some solid pairings — Dirty Projectors and David Byrne, The National with avant-garde composer Nico Muhly — but the goal seems to be crafting a great album, not one that can be summed up in a tiny blurb. Even when the choices are obvious (who would’ve guessed Jose Gonzalez is a Nick Drake fan?), the results are so well assembled that it’s impossible to complain. Sufjan Stevens’s title track is worth the price of admission alone, moving as it does from glitchy electronics to elaborate orchestration and every odd blend in between, and with a roster that includes Spoon, Feist, Grizzly Bear, Yo La Tengo and largely every other indie heavyweight you care to mention, it’s certainly a solid investment.

A few neat ideas aside, neither Heroes nor Dark Was the Night radically redefine the benefit album. At least this time around, the music’s almost as good as the cause.

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