various artists,
Americana
(Putumayo, 2007)

various artists,
Give US Your Poor
(Appleseed, 2007)


It does not rest easy on the conscience to greet CDs promoting worthy causes with unfavorable notices. The truth is, however, that sometimes the music isn't as good as the cause. In such cases the reviewer is tempted to opt for the easy solution: not to review at all. Fortunately, in the two present instances the music is solid, and one's aesthetic satisfaction and one's sense of one's responsibility to one's fellows are one.

A collection of current modern-but-rooted folk music (plus one traditional), Americana keeps its good work to a paragraph in the liner notes, which report, "A portion of Putumayo's proceeds from the sale of this CD will be donated to America's Second Harvest -- The Nation's Food Bank Network, which distributes more than 2 billion pounds of food every year." The notes to the Appleseed anthology inform us, "The Give US Your Poor mission is to create a revolution in public awareness, dispel myths and inspire action towards ending epidemic homelessness in the United States," and the proceeds go there. None of this ought to be controversial, of course, but somehow in Bush's America advocacy of basic human decency can feel like a subversive distraction from America's main preoccupation: spending $3 billion a week to make war on brown-skinned non-Christians.

It should be added that Give US Your Poor does not relegate its sentiments to its liner notes. The album opens with a harrowing montage, "Land of 10,000 Homeless -- Minnesota," which consists mostly of the firsthand testimony of homeless persons in the Twin Cities. (And they're there; I've seen them plenty of times with my own four eyes.) For the most part, though, the CD consists of songs broadly on the theme, performed by a range of artists, a few of whom have had the personal experience of homelessness. The stars include Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Merchant, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Keb Mo', John Sebastian, Jon Bon Jovi and Jewel, often performing with other, less-known but talented musicians. Some of the most compelling cuts are from not-household names such as the splendid folk-rock band Buffalo Tom -- whose "Ink Falling (Father Outside)" is a standout -- and Madeleine Peyroux, who provides a particularly affecting reading of Randy Newman's haunting meditation "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."

Americana's artists are, most of them anyway, stars of the current roots scene, which means that except for Norah Jones (who shows up here with her Little Willies band) their followings are more cult than mass. All of the songs are self-composed except for the venerable "House of the Risin' Sun," which Tim O'Brien delivers in a soulful stringband arrangement. If there's nothing here that will send you into uncontrollable ecstasy, there's nothing you won't like either, not with a lineup of the above-mentioned, Robert Earl Keen, Old Crow Medicine Show, Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, and comparable dependables. Other artists with whom I am less familiar -- Mulehead, Eliza Lynn, Terri Hendrix and most of all Ruthie Foster (whose "Hole in My Picket" concludes the album with melody and lyrics that will stick inside your head long after the CD has ceased playing) -- all give me cause to want to know them better.




Rambles.NET
review by
Jerome Clark

17 November 2007




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