Music Review: Songs for Tibet

by Rick Rockwell

Rarely these days do we get albums that spark real political debate. But this week, Songs for Tibet — The Art of Peace arrives (released on iTunes on Aug. 5 and out in CD format on two discs Aug. 12) to spur discussion about the Tibetan independence movement, the Summer Olympics, and China’s poor human rights record.

And already the propaganda wars have begun. Apple’s iTunes was hit with a raft of comments looking suspiciously like Chinese hackers at work: condemning the album project and calling it shallow and poorly timed. Some of the comments noted that instead of proceeds from the songs going to the Art of Peace Foundation in Washington, D.C. (which works to preserve Tibetan culture) money from the release should go to victims of the Sichuan earthquake.

Clearly, the earthquake victims deserve help. However, as Amnesty International notes, on the eve of the Olympics (which some supported giving to China as a way to improve human rights) China is going backward by cracking down on dissent and limiting freedoms. And China’s government continues unabated in its programs to assimilate Tibet. So the timing of Songs for Tibet seems extremely appropriate.

The debate surrounding the album may rage, but usually that leaves the music aside, except for blanket cheers or jeers. As these charity projects go though, as usual, this release is a mixed affair. Just like Amnesty International’s Instant Karma (John Lennon covers with proceeds going to projects in Darfur) from last year, perhaps these albums are best for electronic downloading, so listeners can cherry-pick the best material and leave the clunkers. And usually on such albums there are far too many clunkers. For instance, Duncan Sheik's "Nothing Fades" and Vanessa Carlton's "More Than This" could have been dropped from this collection and no one would miss them.

Often these high-minded projects produce self-conscious treacle. The stereotypical decision to ask performers to produce acoustic works for Songs for Tibet only underscores that problem. (As if songs about peace cannot be electrified.) So chalk up “To Heal (And Restore Broken Bodies)” from electronica trio Underworld and “All the Good in This Life” from Garbage in that category to skip. Underworld seems uncomfortably out of place here, forced to use tape loops, spoken word, and an organ to make its point due to the supposedly acoustic format. Garbage also uses a drum machine on its track, not completely in keeping with the restrictive guidelines.

However, one of the better decisions on Songs for Tibet was to include live material from musicians, immediately putting them in a context to provide strong performances. In that vein, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds donate an impassioned live version of “Where Are You Going” which matches any of the other versions of this Matthews classic that you can find. That’s worth picking up. Ben Haper and his band contribute a rousing live version of “Better Way.” Rush provides a live version of the instrumental “Hope” (actually a solo piece from guitarist Alex Lifeson) from the superior Snakes and Arrows, which is also worthy, although it is a trifle compared to the rest of the original album. Jackson Browne’s “Alive in the World” seems identical to the track on his recent second collection of acoustic performances. So why not download the Songs for Tibet track instead of giving Browne your cash?

Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek 2” (a reworked version of a song she wrote originally for use on the now-defunct FOX series The O.C.) seems to be getting the most attention of all the pieces on this collection. The underlying arrangement and Heap’s vocal inflections invoke the spirit present in some Buddhist rituals.

Always the experimenter, Damien Rice (of Blur and The Good, The Bad & The Queen) also pulls together a choir session with a group of disabled musicians called the Cheshire Project. Their song, “Making Noise,” is a quaint piece of chamber pop.

All in all, Songs for Tibet is a generally pleasing collection of live numbers, alternative takes, and a few originals (some exclusive to this project for now) with only a few off moments. There’s nothing monumental here, but it’s more than music to inspire meditation.

Finally, some belittle such projects as playing to suburban middle class guilt: download a song and you’ve done your bit for Tibetan independence. Certainly, folks should raise their voices against oppression just as these musicians have on Songs for Tibet. If downloading a song is a gateway to further action, then so be it.

(For more background on Tibet, China, and the Olympics, please see: "China & the Olympic Profiteers;" and "Olympic Travesty: Tibet, China & Human Rights.")

(The photo of Rush in concert in Milan, Italy in 2004 is by Enrico Frangi; Frangi has placed this image in the public domain. Rush is one of 20 musical acts that took part in the
Songs for Tibet project. To see Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds performing "Where Are You Going," which is also on the collection, please check below.)

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