Dark Was The Night (A Red Hot Compilation)…

dark-night

Various Artists – Dark Was The Night (A Red Hot Compilation from 4AD Records; released February 17th, 2009)

Can a compilation album change the world? What if a record label assembled an all-star cast of the indie music world’s heaviest hitters under the premise that proceeds would go to benefit worldwide HIV/AIDS research? The folks at the Red Hot Organization have offered us fifteen compilation albums going back to 1990, and among their releases the most notable have been the 90’s alt-rock standard No Alternative, the songs of Cole Porter on Red Hot + Blue and the hip-hop culture-meets-jazz stalwarts record Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool.

As the message boards on assorted websites like this one fill up with Bonnaroo vs Coachella debates (really, who cares?), all arguments can be quelled by the fact that 4AD‘s Dark Was The Night compilation is the music event of 2009, probably of this new millennium’s first decade- the only records coming close would be last years’ awesome Living Bridge compilation, or any of those ridiculously fantastic and free Stereogum tribute albums.

While it feels like one of those aforementioned music festivals’ line-up list, the mood has an overall subdued tone- after all, we’re talking about a pandemic that’s killed about 25 million people since 1981, which can put a damper on any party. And this ain’t no party music.

You know; humanity’s defining feature, the one thing that gives me a glimmer of hope for this seemingly doomed world is the fact that when faced with adversity, we humans have a remarkable knack for banding together and breaking down our self-imposed barriers- so at a glance the musical pairings on this record would suggest the gap between artistic differences can be easily bridged. Some not so unexpected; Dirty Projectors have culled a huge influence from David Byrne‘s catalog so I can totally hear how the album’s opener Knotty Pine works, Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues (teaming up for a cover of Amazing Grace) are touring together right now, Leslie Feist‘s collaboration with Ben Gibbard is well matched; both write really nice three-minute pop gems and Conor Oberst paired with Gillian Welch is no stretch; two insurgent country mainstays sharing a track seems natural enough.

But even as some of the pairings seem “normal”, like the Gibbard-Feist collaboration, it gets weirder as you see the choice of covers- that duo teaming up on a Vashti Bunyan song, The Books and Jose Gonzalez doing a Nick Drake song and the title track; an instrumental cover of Blind Willie Johnson by the dark and minimalist string foursome Kronos Quartet, it gets stranger as you go on- but only on paper. It plays cohesively as much as a compilation album should; there’s a general theme in there somewhere; unity through a common cause.

It’s hard to believe that some of these songs would be considered “throw away” tracks, not making it on to these bands’ albums; The National, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Beirut all have given excellent songs. Just the fact that Colin Meloy & Co. left Sleepless off of their upcoming album Hazards of Love leads me to believe that that record is going to be amazing. Speaking of amazing- the centerpiece of the album (placed at the end of the first disc) is Sufjan Stevens‘ cover of CastanetsYou Are The Blood, turning it into a sprawling and strange epic, an electro-classical magnum opus with piano breaks and brass sections over club-banger beats- it’s as if he’s trying to convey the entire scope of his musical output in ten minutes and fourteen seconds, joining the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit with his Seven Swans-era and those states-themed concept albums. Canadian hip-hopper Buck 65 remixes this track on the second disc, adding his two cents in the way of furiously spit verses.

More about the covers; My Brightest Diamond doing an amazing job at Nina Simone‘s Feeling Good, Antony & The National‘s Bryce Dessner taking on Bob Dylan‘s I Was Young When I Left Home, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings get way beyond funky with Shuggie OtisInspiration Information, TV On The Radio mastermind Dave Sitek on his creepy-but-cool version of The TroggsA Girl Like Like You and two artists covering themselves, sort of; the Oberst-Welch cover of Lua from his Bright Eyes days, Andrew Bird is consistent as always with a cover of Handsome Family‘s The Giant of Illinois, and The New Pornographers covering their own band member Destroyer‘s Hey, Snow White.

The forgettable tracks; Spoon mailed theirs in with the less-than-average Well-Alright, My Morning Jacket‘s El Caporal is el crapola, Stuart Murdoch sans his Belle & Sebastian cohorts is sub-par at best and the album sputters to a finish with Blonde Redhead‘s When The Road Runs Out (with help from the Aussie band Devastations) and Kevin Drew‘s Love vs. Porn, both songs lackluster and without much feeling. But with 25+ tracks of exceptional music the blind spots are covered; that’s why music players come with a “skip track” option.

Curated and produced by The National‘s Dessner brothers (Bryce & Aaron), Dark Was The Night is the indie super-compilation I’ve been waiting for; having all these excellent artists together on one album makes for an accurate snapshot of who’s who in the current scene, it’s like “here’s every band that’s at the top of their artform right this minute”. Or it can serve as an introductory primer for beginners too stand-offish to completely dive into any of the featured groups’ body of work.

Either way, it’s a stellar listen; two-plus hours of music packaged into two discs or three records all the while supporting a worthy cause, it’s the “can’t miss” record of 2009.

Tracklisting:

DARK WAS THE NIGHT

THIS DISC
1.  Knotty Pine – Dirty Projectors + David Byrne
2.  Cello Song (Nick Drake) – The Books featuring Jose Gonzalez
3.  Train Song (Vashti Bunyan recorded, written by Alasdair Clayre) – Feist + Ben Gibbard
4.  Brackett, WI – Bon Iver
5.  Deep Blue Sea – Grizzly Bear
6.  So Far Around the Bend – The National (arrangement by Nico Muhly)
7.  Tightrope – Yeasayer
8.  Feeling Good (popularized by Nina Simone) – My Brightest Diamond
9.  Dark Was the Night (Blind Willie Johnson) – Kronos Quartet
10. I Was Young When I Left Home (Bob Dylan) – Antony + Bryce Dessner
11. Big Red Machine – Justin Vernon + Aaron Dessner
12. Sleepless – The Decemberists
13. Stolen Houses (Die) – Iron and Wine
14. Service Bell – Grizzly Bear + Feist
15. You Are The Blood – Sufjan Stevens

THAT DISC
1.  Well-Alright – Spoon
2.  Lenin – Arcade Fire
3.  Mimizan – Beirut
4.  El Caporal – My Morning Jacket
5.  Inspiration Information (Shuggie Otis) – Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
6.  With A Girl Like You (The Troggs) – Dave Sitek
7.  Blood Pt 2 (based on original song “You are the Blood” by the Castanets) – Buck 65 Remix (featuring Sufjan Stevens and Serengeti)
8.  Hey, Snow White (Destroyer) – The New Pornographers
9.  Gentle Hour (Snapper) – Yo La Tengo
10. Another Saturday (traditional song) – Stuart Murdoch
11. Happiness – Riceboy Sleeps
12. Amazing Grace (traditional song) – Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues
13. The Giant Of Illinois (Handsome Family) – Andrew Bird
14. Lua – Conor Oberst + Gillian Welch
15. When the Road Runs Out – Blonde Redhead + Devastations
16. Love vs. Porn – Kevin Drew

Dark Was The Night