Subtitled “an album to benefit children affected by war,” War Child Presents Heroes, like all benefit albums, has good intentions on its side. Of course, good intentions don’t always create great music. The choice between, say, listening to “We Are The World” and Raw Power is really no choice at all. But rather than just throwing a bunch of contemporary artists against the catalog of a single artist and letting them fail to make the songs their own (à la 2007’s dismal Darfur benefit/John Lennon tribute Instant Karma), War Child’s album takes a different approach. Here, the cover artists come handpicked by the artists they cover. Or, to use the liner notes’ terms, “musical legends” have been invited “to place their faith in the next generation.”
Does that faith pay off? Mostly yes, even though the music leans more toward solid than spectacular. Beck takes apart and reassembles Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” and Lily Allen (with some help from Mick Jones) turns The Clash’s “Straight To Hell” into a dance-pop protest song. But most of the artists stay largely reverent to their sources. That can be fine, too; witness Rufus Wainwright’s take on material from The Beach Boys’ Smile. But while Adam Cohen’s cover of his dad Leonard’s “Take This Waltz” is the only instance of literal nepotism, much of Heroes feels like it needs new material in the gene pool. Of course The Hold Steady covers Bruce Springsteen, The Kooks take on The Kinks, and Elbow reprises U2. Still, most of these out-of-centerfield choices work well enough, and with only a few duds—most notably, Scissor Sisters’ hellish “Do The Strand”—Heroes rarely proves unpleasant. And it’s for a good cause. Just check out that subtitle again.