V/A | West of Memphis: Voices for Justice (Legacy)

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WOM 500The highest praise I can offer for this album is this: It does justice to its cause.

 

A terrible crime was committed in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993: Three children were murdered and their bodies dumped in a drainage canal. This was followed by another crime, as three teenagers were convicted of the murder on the basis of scant evidence, intimations of satanic rituals, and some really bad police work. I refer, of course, to the case of the West Memphis 3—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley—who were released from prison on August 19, 2011, after entering an Alford Plea that allowed them to plead guilty while still asserting their innocence. It’s an imperfect solution—as far as the state of Arkansas is concerned, the case is closed, and Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are guilty as charged—but considerably better, from the point of the convicted, than spending the rest of your life prison or, in the case of Damien Echols, on death row awaiting your execution.

Unless you have been living in a cave for the past 20 years, you’ve probably heard of this case—among other things, four documentary films have been devoted to it—and also that private money facilitated the investigations that were able to challenge the original convictions. When the defense attorney on a murder case is working for $19 an hour and there’s a cap of $1,000 to pay for forensic evidence, you can’t expect much justice, especially when the opportunity of solving a high-profile case by scapegoating a couple of outsiders presents itself to the prosecution. The new album, West of Memphis: Voices for Justice, is part of the ongoing effort to raise money for the West Memphis 3 and to promote public awareness of this case.

The album is a combination of excerpts from the soundtrack of West of Memphis, Amy Berg’s documentary about the case, and new material “inspired by the film.” The highest praise I can offer for this album is this: It does justice to its cause. Every track is interesting and adds something to the mix, while also being true to the spirit of Berg’s film and to the events portrayed therein. A regular murderer’s row, if you’ll pardon the pun, of performers appear on this album—among them Natalie Maines, Lucinda Williams, Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Henry Rollins—so I almost feel guilty singling out just a few.

Having said that, Natalie Maines’ version of Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” accompanied by Ben Harper on lap steel; Lucinda Williams’ rendition of her own “Joy”; and Band of Horses’ “Dumpster World” stood out for me as particularly apt, given the context. For pure heartbreak, though, you can’t beat Henry Rollins reading a letter from Damien Echols over music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The title says it all: “Damien Echols Death Row Letter Year 9.” You can see the whole track list for West of Memphis: Voices for Justice here. A | Sarah Boslaugh

RIYL: Murder Ballads; Think Tank 

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