[Originally published 1993 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Remember when Red Hot & Blue came out three years ago? The AIDS-benefit album became something of a de facto homosexual identity card as millions of sensitive folk felt honour-bound to buy it – even if only a couple of songs were worth listening to. (My faves: David Byrne and Iggy and Debby.) Add the frustration of the album's chiarooscuro graphics (to which only the rare vinyl edition did justice) and you get one red-hot disappointment.
However, Red Hot & Blue did put the pinko-lefty charity album on the map, and as sure as there's an X in Christmas more charity albums were inevitable. Here is the story of two: No Alternative (Arista/BMG), raising more money for the Red Hot Organization, and Born to Choose (Rykodisc/Denon), a pro-choice fundraiser.
"This is not an alternative-rock collection," exclaim No Alternative's liner notes. "'Alternative' rock does not exist. It is a myth on a par with Elvis sightings, quality airline food and stress-free relationships." Hey, at least they're honest. No Alternative sets a new standard for benefit albums: It's actually worth listening to! You can put this album on continuous play for a couple of hours (at the gym, for example) and not get tired of it. Matthew Sweet sets the tone in the opening number, "Superdeformed": "There's something I should tell you before I take your blindfold off... I'm superdeformed!" – but of course it's an allegorical deformity, one which HIV-positive people might just identify with.
While Sarah McLachlan's "Hold On" is too low-key for the buzzing energy of the rest of the album and Patti Smith's Mapplethorpe elegy has more emotional than musical merit, that's about the strongest criticism I can make. Look for an "untitled, uncredited" song by a band that may remind you of bliss or paradise, cheer echt heterosexualists Soundgarden and the Beastie Boys for appearing on the album, and settle back for Soul Asylum's creditable '90s remake of "Sexual Healing," which sounds to me like something we all need as the long, draining, prime-numbered year of 1993 slouches to a close.
Though Born to Choose overlaps with No Alternative in a few contributors (Soundgarden, Bob Mould, Matthew Sweet) and offers something approximating a well-designed pro-choice polemic in its liner notes (as ever, fabbo artist Sue Coe's painting is worth the price of admission), you are apt to find yourself fast-forwarding through a few songs. Those who detest Tom Waits (you know who you are, and I'm on your side) will gag at his atonal gurglings on "Filipino Box Spring Hog," while those who cannot understand the respect accorded the Cowboy Junkies will find no light shed on the mystery.
Worse, if you're already up-to-date on the political issues surrounding choice, you'll resent the preachiness of the title track by the Mekons ("Protect the unborn, put the living down. 'Apolitical,' hypocritical, big-money Nazi cause..."). Let's face it, this album will be bought only by pro-choice people, so can we maybe just rock out and dig the music? Besides, the Canadian Abortion Rights Action League gets only a buck per album sold (main royalties fill the coffers of three worthy U.S. organizations). Buy Born to Choose if you wish, but if you really want to support CARAL or your local pro-choice group, write out a cheque or do volunteer work or something.
"Cowards in Compton," a new single by Luke (alias Luke Campbell, né Luther R. Campbell, late of 2 Live Crew), rips apart chart-topping rappers Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (the latter facing a murder rap these days). The song features lines like "True brothers don't talk that way, shit! Talking about letting other brothers suck your dick – only punks talk like that! I won't even punch you, I'll slap you with my"... well, it becomes unintelligible at that point, though the word "faggot" does pop up later. At the tail end of the song is a disclaimer uttered in 6.5 seconds flat: "Luke Records would like to acknowledge that all references made in the previous work towards homosexuals does [sic] not reflect an anti-homosexual position on our part. Our problem is just homosexuals by the name of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg."
After this, we sure know who's been naughty. Here's hoping Luke's stocking gets stuffed with coal.