Released by the RIAA via a joint effort from all the major labels, Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now is a double-disc benefit album for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated large portions of the Gulf Coast, including one of America's greatest musical cities, New Orleans. Given its leisurely pace and overly generous length of 35 tracks spread out over two discs, there's plenty of room for examples of classic New Orleans music and new recordings from current superstars, plus the de rigueur all-star singalongs, and that's what makes Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now both intriguing and maddening: for every good moment, there's a mediocrity or an embarrassment right around the corner. All the classic New Orleans cuts are well-chosen -- Louis Armstrong opens it up with "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" and songs by Clifton Chenier and Professor Longhair follow -- but there aren't many of them, which makes some sense: these aren't the names that sell records in 2005, so it's better to load up the record with a bunch of big marquee names. Hurricane Relief contains plenty of those kind of marquee names -- in fact, it's often stretched to the bursting point, with a cover of Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" featuring 16 credited artists and the brand new title track, co-written by socialite/songwriter Denise Rich and actress Sharon Stone, featuring a gob-smacking 27 artists. More isn't necessarily merrier, however -- as a matter of fact, the quality of the music on Come Together Now is roughly inversely proportional to the number of artists on the record: the more collaborators, the worse it is.
While there are a few exceptions, most of the new single-artist tracks here are quite good, whether it's Faith Hill's passionate gospel "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," Harry Connick, Jr.'s "City Beneath the Sea," Van Morrison's relaxed "Blue and Green," John Fogerty's fiery "Born on the Bayou," James Brown's "Try Me," Dr. John's funky "Goin' Back to New Orleans," or the Neville Brothers' moody "Brothers." Some of the collaborations really click, too: John Mayer provides good support for Aaron Neville, Rod Stewart teams up with Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town for a gospel reading of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Norah Jones and Wyclef Jean's "Any Other Day" largely works despite a few awkward lyrics, while Kanye West's "We Can Make It Better," with Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, Common, and Rhymefest is one of the best things here. But these good moments are nearly outweighed by such flat-out embarrassments as Sting's inexplicable Louis Armstrong song-length impersonation on a live reading of "Moon Over Bourbon Street," the well-intentioned but ham-fisted "Heart of America" (featuring Eric Benet, Michael McDonald, Wynonna Judd, and Terry Dexter), the silly "When the Saints Go Marching Back In," a half-hearted hip-hop reinterpretation of the New Orleans standard featuring Kirk Whalum, Coolio, Cz101, Kyle Eastwood, Kyle Whalum, Rod McGaha, and Wayman Tisdale. Most of all, the two high-profile all-star singalongs encapsulate everything that's wrong with celeb charity records; they sound slapped together in the studio, contain awkward vocal pairings (and in the case of the title track, no discernible tune), and sound for all the world like the Simpsons' parody "Sending Our Love Down the Well."
These all-star collaborations are so spectacularly awful that they can't help but suck up the air around them, making it seem like they dominate more of the album than they actually do, when they're really just five tracks out of 35. The rest of the album is either quite solid or reasonably entertaining, which is enough to make it an overall success, despite the undeniable low-points. Besides, even the failures have their heart in the right place, and they're easy enough to skip past. The important point is, the RIAA is donating 100-percent of its net proceeds from this CD -- which they estimate to be about $15 -- to the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and MusiCares Hurricane Relief 2005. Given that sincere effort, it seems a little churlish to complain about the weak spots of the comp, particularly since most of the record isn't bad at all.