CD Review of Playing for Change: Songs around the World by Various Artists
Various Artists: Playing for Change: Songs around the World
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Bob Marley, Keb’ Mo’, Ted Hawkins
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Various Artists:
Playing for Change:
Songs around the World

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


hether it’s complaining about the 33 killing the 78, warning of the evils of multi-track recording, decrying the widespread use of synthesizers, or hating on Pro Tools and Auto-Tune, older music fans have always complained about new developments in recording technology. It’s hard not to agree they have a point – and always have – but it’s just as hard not to get excited about some of the incredible things that new technology has made possible. Case in point: producer Mark Johnson’s Playing for Change: Songs around the World, an amazing new multimedia project that took 10 years and all manner of high-tech gizmos to come together.

For a decade, Johnson and his crew traveled the world, recording a bewildering assortment of musicians – most of them outside, in the streets and fields of their home countries – and stitching the performances together to create a sort of all-star collaboration without the stars. Well, okay, there are a couple of stars – Bono and Keb’ Mo’ contribute – but it’s a testament to the overall quality of the musicians represented here, from Santa Monica street performer Roger Ridley to Israeli singer Tula and Congolese drummer Junior Kissanrigwa, that no one artist stands out from the pack. In fact, if there’s a real star here, it’s Johnson, who took recordings made in the most disparate locations and made them sound like the work of a band playing in the same living room. Auto-Tune surely sucks, but if we have to accept it as a byproduct of the technology that makes this sort of thing possible, then it’s surely worth it.

The CD’s 10-song track listing is heavy on iconic covers – songs that were probably selected in order to establish some quick common ground between the far-flung performers, but which work well in the context of the album’s stated goal of, in Johnson’s words, "to find a way to inspire the world to come together. To stop the hate. To see the commonality we share." They’re lofty ideals, to be sure, and they’ve been espoused by so many charity projects that it’s easy to write them off as airy-fairy nonsense whenever we hear them, but goddamn if Playing for Change doesn’t make them seem like they might someday be within reach. Hearing performers collaborate from across the globe on songs like "Stand by Me," "One Love," "Biko," "War/No More Trouble," and "Don’t Worry" is nothing short of profoundly, deeply moving.

Playing for Change’s power is underscored by the included DVD, which intercuts footage of the musicians as they perform a handful of cuts from the album, adding a trailer for the "Playing for Change" movie and an informational clip about the foundation, which was inspired by the album and seeks to provide resources for musicians and their communities. We’ve already seen a number of charity compilations this year, and we’ll surely see plenty more before 2010, but if you’re only going to buy one – whether for musical or altruistic reasons – make it Playing for Change. Wonderful, just wonderful.

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