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The benefit album has become a rather dubious staple of the music industry since the 1985 famine-relief efforts of Live Aid and U.S.A. for Africa. It’s not too hard to figure out why: Benefit albums offer a practically effortless return to the heady marriage of music and political activism that was born in the ’60s while providing welcome new output for fans and collectors.
Over the past decade, as “We Are the World” harmonizing has given way to Red Hot + Blue-style samplers, the onslaught of benefit albums has so ingrained the concept in the popular mindset that they’re now being satirized (South ParkChef Aid). But because the field is so overcrowded, they’ve also become less effective. Nowadays, for a benefit album to receive any substantive media attention, the titular “cause” must either be politically poignant or command sought-after entertainers to have the kind of galvanizing effect organizers aim for.
Hempilation 2: freetheweed, the second fundraising album for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, can claim both advantages. It is also saddled with big expectations; 1995’s original, Hempilation: Freedom Is NORML, sold upward of 100,000 copies.
As consumer products, benefit albums succeed in direct proportion to the caliber of celebrity they attract. Were that the only criterion for success, Hempilation 2 would be a runaway hit; as with its predecessor, it includes appearances by virtually every pro-weed notable this side of Woody Harrelsonand since, these days, the marijuana legalization issue has become second only to those oppressed Tibetans as a lightning rod for righteous celebrity activism, that’s not bad. Throw in a jam-happy record label and the sponsorship of stoner bible High Times magazine, and you’d appear to have a can’t-miss project. Too bad the folks putting the album together forgot to include good music. (If I were guessing, I’d chalk it up to short-term memory loss.)
While big-name stars are well-represented (George Clinton, Willie Nelson, Spearhead, among others), along with some interesting and unlikely smaller names (Letters to Cleo, Vic Chesnutt, Blue Mountain), the common thread in most of these songsaside from the obvious oneis surprisingly staid, uninspired music. Clinton’s lethargic, Snoop-inspired contribution “U.S. Custom Coast Guard Dope Dog” sounds like detritus from an earlier recording session; Nelson’s “Me and Paul” is likewise uncompelling; and the Long Beach Dub All Stars’ cover of the dance-hall standard “Under Mi Sensi” is an out-and-out disappointment considering the excellent paeans to pot once offered by the band’s precursor, Sublime.
One of Hempilation 2’s most grating characteristics is its abundance of cover songs. Only the most ardent activist would pay to hear the Freddy Jones Band sing a Traffic song (“Light Up or Leave Me Alone”), Gov’t Mule cover Humble Pie (“30 Days in the Hole”), From Good Homes tackle Charlie Daniels (“Long Haired Country Boy”), or Spearhead honor Steve Miller (“The Joker”which Homer Simpson did better). There are notable exceptions: Robert Bradley’s Blackwater Surprise does a fine, country-tinged “Don’t Bogart Me,” for example. But it’s hard to escape the thought that these bands don’t want to put forth the effort to create an original. When they do, the results are entirely differentWashington’s own Everything opens with the energetic original “Free to Choose” (which ought to be subtitled “If Congress Approves Funding”). And “Mary Jane,” a Blue Mountain original, glows with the unassuming radiance of the group’s previous work.
The country contingent makes a strong case for hemp activism: Vic Chesnutt, especially, gets extra points for his clever “Weed (To the Rescue),” which is not just about marijuana, but about medical marijuana. But Hempilation 2 fails to live up to the promise inherent in a benefit albumthat it will deliver some added value beyond the warm, fuzzy sense of altruism that comes from supporting the cause. Ultimately, a benefit album isn’t geared toward activists, who are already converts. Instead, it’s meant to lure those music fans who are unwilling simply to pony up money for the cause, but who admire the contributing artists enough to part with the $15 or so it costs to buy the disc. That’s where the problem lies in this case, because the product really isn’t that good.
The two Hempilation albums are no more substantive than the “This is your brain on drugs” ads; they just take the other side of the debate and have an admittedly hipper style. But, like most benefit albums, they aren’t artthey’re artifice. A slapdash cover song by your favorite band might be well and good when it’s the second encore, but when that band contributes only one track to an albumand when most of the tracks are slapdash coversyou’re left with a crummy CD and the smoldering suspicion that you’ve been had. And that doesn’t help anyone.
After two Hempilation releases, a couple of conclusions can safely be drawn: Pot songs, while kind of neat in concept, are a decidedly limited genre whose modest charms can’t sustain an entire album. That goes double if they’re songs that you’re already tired of hearing. Though the country vein is an interesting departure from the norm and there is the occasionally clever wit like Chesnutt, it isn’t enough to save Hempilation 2 from the slew of overlong, meandering duds that don’t seem to have much direction or even a clear sense of purpose. Given their inspiration, maybe that shouldn’t be surprising.CP