Dear New Orleans
Judging Hurricane Katrina tributes is a tricky business. There are no bonus points for having your heart in the right place — by definition, they all do. Observed on a purely musical basis, Dear New Orleans, produced by the nonprofit Air Traffic Control (ATC) and benefiting Sweet Home New Orleans and the Gulf Restoration Network, is tougher still: At more than two hours over 31 tracks, the double LP covers so much artistic ground that multiple peaks and valleys are part and parcel. ATC sent invitations to all 60 artists who participated in its activism retreats here during the past four years, and the overwhelming number of respondents both adds and subtracts from the album's overall impact. On one hand, it's hugely gratifying that so many visiting musicians representing such diverse genres and styles dove into the project. There's certainly something for every taste, from radio pop pabulum (Luke Reynolds) to unintelligible indie rock (The Wrens), local y'at flavor (Paul Sanchez) to lilting Welsh brogue (Jon Langford). But like all double LPs, it's an exhausting listen whose focus begins to wane around the hour mark. The highlights are high indeed: "Dr. So and So," from Alec Ounsworth's underrated New Orleans recording Mo' Beauty, leads a galloping stampede with Al "Carnival Time" Johnson and John Boutte; "Catch a Collapsing Star," a crumbling 2005 folk ballad by defunct Athens, Ga., band the Mendoza Line, accidentally encapsulates the Crescent City as well as any outsider could ("It's your limitations that make you what you are"). A slashing of the blander, heavy-handed cuts (apologies, OK Go and Tom Morello) and covers (Mike Mills' "Ohio," Allison Moorer's "A Change is Gonna Come") would've tightened the album, as would eliminating a closing six-song live suite — featuring R.E.M.'s Mills, the MC5's Wayne Kramer and horns by Bonerama — that feels tacked on and probably worked better in person. That's followed, of course, by the exception: My Morning Jacket and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band's rollicking take on "Carnival Time," among the most inspired standard interpretations since the storm. It ensures that the applause that finishes the disc is well deserved.
Katrina Ballads, a 10-song, 70-minute orchestral cycle by Ted Hearne, should come with a Surgeon General's Warning. Anyone who watched in horror as New Orleans devolved into a state of madness that first week of September 2005 — which is to say, almost everyone — will be flooded with severe emotion at Hearne's creation. For those who lived through it, this powerfully evocative piece could prove at times unbearable. Doubtless the most ambitious musical homage to the hurricane and its aftermath, it also may be the most successful. Hearne, an award-winning 27-year-old composer, debuted the work in 2007 as a stage performance for 11 players and five singers (including himself). An alternately tense and exalting melange of woodwinds, brass, keys and strings, its lyrics are drawn entirely from interview transcripts, turning each track into a nightmare flashback: A prickling opener by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fisher sets the tone, comparing the fates of New Orleans, New York and San Francisco; the most heartbreaking moment, an interpretation of Mississippian Hardy Jackson's cries on camera for his missing wife, is presented as an operatic spiritual by baritone Anthony Turner. But Hearne's most impressive accomplishment is his use of music as a sardonic commentary on government response. He makes Anderson Cooper's curiously dodgy interview with Sen. Mary Landrieu into a dramatic game of cat and mouse; repeats George W. Bush's "Heckuva job, Brownie" speech until it's a scale-slipping, comical absurdity; and sets Barbara Bush's Houston remarks to bright, biting ragtime piano. Expertly sequenced, it somehow manages personal and cultural empathy, political mockery and Hitchcockian suspense.