West of Memphis: Voices for Justice, which is not quite a soundtrack to the new documentary about the West Memphis 3, opens with Henry Rollins reading a letter he received from Damien Echols about 10 years ago. Echols had been convicted along with two other Arkansas teenagers of the murder and mutilation of three young boys, despite little hard evidence linking them to the crime. For nearly 20 years, they languished in state prisons, their appeals ignored by the very courts that railroaded them. Describing the inhumane conditions of a new jail cell and the disappointment of yet another legal roadblock, Rollins’s voice never boils over with anger or rage. Instead, he trusts Echols’s words to convey all the fear and misery of a falsely accused man who has spent most of his life in prison. It’s a harrowing introduction to West of Memphis, which surprisingly turns out to be a celebratory compilation defined by the relief of their freedom (all three were finally released in 2012) than by the grief of their wrongful incarceration.
The musicians who contributed to West of Memphis have all been deeply involved in the case for many years, and most of them have chosen songs that Echols listened to in prison, either to psych himself up for another appeal or simply to pass the time. Natalie Maines turns in a dramatic reading of Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” which is only somewhat sympathetic to the title character, and the White Buffalo eloquently countrifies Faster Pussycat’s long-forgotten L.A. Strip hit “House of Pain.” Other artists wrote songs specifically for the West Memphis 3: Eddie Vedder penned the simple, bittersweet “Satellite” as a love song for Echols and his wife in 2000. The music’s close relation to the West Memphis 3 lends this compilation a cohesive quality missing from so many socially and politically minded collections. While there are certainly a few skippable tracks (such as the cover of “Little Lion Man” by Johnny Depp’s band Tonto’s Giant Nuts), overall West of Memphis testifies to the power of music to comfort and console during even the most unfathomable tragedies and injustices.