Sweet Relief III — Pennies from Heaven
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Twenty years since the first Sweet Relief album, a tribute to and benefit for Victoria Williams, and 17 away from the last edition dedicated to the music of the late Vic Chesnutt, the third entry finally rolls around. Why it has taken so long for it to appear is unclear, but the musical approach is slightly different. Rather than covering one artist’s songs as the previous sets have, volume 3 features a variety of acts interpreting tunes loosely—sometimes very loosely– about support and assistance.
The covers are predominantly dialed down, occasionally totally acoustic and range from inspired (Ben Harper’s read of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love”) to heartbreaking (a sweet, touching version of Merle Haggard’s “How Did You Find Me Here?” by k.d. lang), to overwrought (Tina Schlieske’s unnecessary note for note copy of Joe Cocker’s far better interpretation of the Beatles “With a Little Help from My Friends.”)
It’s difficult to find the thread that connects the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl” and Sam Phillips’ sultry twist on the Sweet Charity standard “Big Spender” with the “support and assistance” theme, but both turn in wonderfully nuanced and personal performances of songs they clearly relish singing and rearranging. Along with Schlieske, another artist new to most readers named Genevieve Toupin delivers an emotional, dramatic reading of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” on solo piano. Shelby Lynne’s jazzy, bluesy “Brother Where Are You” is moving, sublime and arguably the disc’s high point.
As with most various artist collections, there are a few missteps. She and Him’s tossed off “King of the Road” feels rushed and inconsequential and as wonderful as it is to hear Victoria Williams, her idiosyncratic childlike voice doesn’t have the gravitas to pull off Sam Cooke’s classic “Change is Gonna Come.” The generally delightful Ron Sexsmith turns in a string laden, beautifully sung but ultimately snoozy “Pennies from Heaven” which, as the opening and title track, is disappointing.
But the cause — the money raised goes to musicians in need—is a good one, and there are enough winners in the 13 selections to recommend this to fans of any of these performers, all of whom selflessly donated their services to help raise funds for their peers who have fallen on hard times.