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Compilations for good causes

The Hold Steady (top) cover Springsteen on ''War Child Presents Heroes.'' Spoon plays on ''Dark Was The Night.'' The Hold Steady (top) cover Springsteen on ''War Child Presents Heroes.'' Spoon plays on ''Dark Was The Night.''
By Saul Austerlitz and James Reed
February 26, 2009
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If, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then this month at least, indie-rock stars are heaping praise on their idols by covering their songs on two new charity albums. The releases - "War Child Presents Heroes" and "Dark Was the Night" - turn up the star wattage, with mixed results.

WAR CHILD PRESENTS HEROES (Astralwerks)

Recording a cover version of another artist's song is much like adapting a novel for the big screen: The chances of success are in exact inverse proportion, generally speaking, to the quality of the original. An execrable original gives covering artists a great deal of room for playfulness and experimentation, but a classic imposes its own rules, to be ignored at one's peril.

"Heroes," the latest star-studded compilation album intended to support War Child, a charitable organization that helps children affected by war, features 16 notable young stars, mostly indie acts, covering their idols' work.

The songs on "Heroes" are all instantly recognizable numbers by the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and Stevie Wonder, and while the pairings are inspired - the Hold Steady covering the Boss, TV on the Radio taking on Bowie's "Heroes" - the results are pleasant, and often little more.

The best versions render the overly familiar nearly unrecognizable. Elbow turns U2's "Running to Stand Still" into a stately, piano-and-harmonica-driven dirge, and Adam Cohen transforms his father Leonard's "Take This Waltz" into a traditional Spanish number.

If reinvention doesn't work, there's always outright appropriation: Franz Ferdinand gives Blondie a makeover, with "Call Me" mutated into another of the Glasgow band's bouncy anthems. (Out now)

ESSENTIAL: "Running to Stand Still" (Elbow)

SAUL AUSTERLITZ

DARK WAS THE NIGHT (4AD)

The Red Hot Organization has produced more than two decades' worth of successful charity albums to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. "Red Hot + Blue" (1990) had folks such as Sinead O'Connor and Tom Waits covering Cole Porter, and "Red Hot + Rio" (1996) was a star-studded Brazilian affair.

The latest in the series, "Dark Was the Night," is the overdue indie-rock installment. Like its predecessors, the double-disc compilation is flush with A-listers: Arcade Fire, Feist, My Morning Jacket, Sufjan Stevens, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, and many more.

Best of all, every song is an original contribution, and even though the album benefits a specific cause, "Dark Was the Night" isn't thematic. Produced by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, which is also featured, the album is more a kaleidoscope of indie rock's finest.

Some songs are brand new, while several others are illuminating covers. Backed by the Dirty Delta Blues, Cat Power delivers a raw and resilient performance of "Amazing Grace" that evokes the late, great country singer Sammi Smith. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings give Shuggie Otis's "Inspiration Information" a soulful workout. Antony Hegarty summons his inner folkie on an acoustic rendition of Bob Dylan's "I Was Young When I Left Home."

Meanwhile, collaborations that sound like a dream on paper - David Byrne with the Dirty Projectors; Conor Oberst with Gillian Welch; Feist with Grizzly Bear and, on a different track, with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard - are exactly that.

All of these songs could stand alone on separate albums; it just so happens that this good music supports a good cause. (Out now)

ESSENTIAL: "Well Alright," Spoon

JAMES REED

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