Benefit albums often are more earnest than truly enjoyable. You typically buy to support the cause rather than wanting to listen to the songs. It’s rare for a benefit album to actually engage you musical, but Sing SOS – Songs of the Spectrum is one of those rare albums.
As the title suggests, this disc concerns autism spectrum disorders, and these disorders are said to affect around 1 in every 100 children. The project’s organizers know something about this disorder too. John O’Neill is a a New York Times writer who wrote about his autistic son as part of a Pulitzer Prize-nominated series.
The disc attracted a strong lineup of performers. The biggest names here are folks like Jackson Browne, Jonatha Brooke and Marshall Crenshaw, along with other musicians such as Dar Williams, Ollabelle, Ari Heist and Don Dixon & Marti Jones. There are obviously a number of fine songwriters involved; however, one of the unique (and rather risky, considering the assembled talented) aspects here is that the artists just sing the songs, not compose them. All the songs basically were written by the trio of O’Neill and Jon Fried and Deena Shoshkes, from the long-running New Jersey indie rock band the Cucumbers. So besides being a benefit disc, this is also something of a concept album.
However, this approach worked out wonderfully. The trio has penned a lyrically cohesive yet musical diverse set of songs that explore living with autism as well as living with someone who has autism. They are able to write from an insider’s perspective while also making it lyrically interesting. On the opening number, “One Went Missing,” engagingly performed by the band Ollabelle, they talk about a parent’s anxiety about having to be vigilant about watching an autism child “every waking hour, every waking minute.” In “Diagnosis,” Richard Julian sings the powerful image of “falling down a well” to convey someone living with autism.
One song that struck me in particular was “Afraid (My Brother’s Cries)” which Fried co-wrote with Chris O’Neill (John’s non-autistic son). It is a relatively simple tune about a brother’s fears for his afflicted brother, but lines like “I’m afraid that there won’t be anyone to catch him when he falls” pack a strong emotional punch. In fact, the entire disc resonates powerfully.
While the lyrics all deal with this serious topic, the arrangements vary enough to avoid making the songs feel like lectures. “If It Were His Legs” is done by Christina Courtin as a piano-based ditty. Dar Williams makes “House On Fire” into an urgent folk-rockers and Dixon & Jones injects “He’s Coming Back” with a fun funkiness.
The final song here, “It’s Time,” puts across an impassioned plea to the government bureaucrats to get “these kids some help,” and it’s performed with suitable outrage by Dan Bern & Mike Viola. The album actually closes with a short but touching spoken word piece written and done by James O’Neill. He gives his perspective about living with autism and concludes with the hopeful line: “the rainbow needs to be spread.”
Sing SOS is not just a terrific benefit album, it’s a pretty terrific album overall.
For more information, visit www.singsos.org