On the occasion of WORLD AIDS DAY today, December 1st a press announcement was made with the complete list of participating artists and cover art for the upcoming 4ADrelease Dark Was The Night. Dark Was The Night will be released on February 17th, 2009. Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National produced the album, and John Carlin, the founder of the Red HotOrganization was the executive producer. A total of 31 exclusive tracks have been recorded for the compilation. It will be available as a double cd/triple viny and will benefit the Red Hot Organization - an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIVand AIDS. Red Hot was founded on the premise that even without a cure, AIDS remains a preventable disease and music is a great vehicle to raise money and awareness for it.Dark Was The Night began three years ago with a casual conversation between Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National and John Carlin. In discussing the project, they agreed it made sense not to do a "theme" album per se; but something that showcased the bast in independent music, with an emphasis on traditional themes played and arranged in a contemporary way, and on songwriting, which is the strength of many of the artists featured here. As Aaron and Bryce started inviting their peers to contribute, their intuition about the pro-social disposition of so many of them was confirmed. As a result, 31 exclusive tracks were recorded.
Review by Heather Phares
The 20th Red Hot compilation Dark Was the Night also arrives during the AIDS charity's 20th anniversary. Curated by the National's Bryce and Aaron Dessner and John Carlin, this double-disc set plays like a who's who of late 2000s indie rock, especially of the mellow and/or folky variety: Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Feist, Ben Gibbard, and Jose Gonzalez all contribute tracks. Though Carlin and the Dessners didn't specify a particular theme for the project outside of updating traditional themes, Dark Was the Night's first disc is remarkably cohesive. Bon Iver's "Brackett, WI," the Decemberists' "Sleepless," the National's "So Far Around the Bend," and Iron & Wine's "Stolen Houses (Die)" are quintessential examples of what these artists are all about. Many of the brightest moments have a spooky, strangely antique feel, particularly the Kronos Quartet's update of Blind Willie Johnson's title track, which keeps the ruminative soulfulness and grit of the original while transporting it to a very different setting. Antony Hegarty and Bryce Dessner's take on Bob Dylan's "I Left Home When I Was Young" is similarly lonely and haunting, but the real standouts is My Brightest Diamond's ambitious cover of "Feelin' Good," which nods to Nina Simone's classic version while staying true to Shana Worden's chilly yet intimate musical vision. Likewise, Feist's collaboration with Grizzly Bear on "Service Bell" brings out an unearthly, almost unrecognizable side to her voice. Dark Was the Night's second disc is more disjointed, but arguably a more interesting listen -- Spoon's brash "Well-Alright," the Arcade Fire's anthemic "Lenin," and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings' slinky cover of Shuggie Otis' "Inspiration Information" have little in common other than that they're all well-crafted. Skipping from indie hip-hop ("Blood, Pt 2," Buck 65's remix of Sufjan Stevens' cover of Castanets' "You are the Blood" featuring rapper Serengeti) to filmic Americana (Andrew Bird's take on the Handsome Family's "The Giant of Illinois") to roots rock (My Morning Jacket's "El Caporal"), there's little rhyme or reason but lots of entertainment. Other highlights include the Dirty Projects' and David Byrne's "Knotty Pine," Stuart Murdoch's simple and beautiful "Another Saturday," and Blonde Redhead and Devastations' dreamy, unsettling "When the Road Runs Out." Though some of the tracks contributed by Dark Was the Night's artists are a touch too predictable, it's uncharitable to nitpick too much when the collection offers so much music for such a good cause.
Charity albums all start wonderfully-- with good intentions and noble causes. Alas, they frequently end poorly, entering the world as collections of outtakes, abandoned ideas, and uninspired covers. Whether that matters is another thing: If you share Natalie Portman's interest in the value of microcredit, or any number of executive producers' hope for more Darfur awareness or money for Doctors Without Borders, getting a decent Death Cab song or Afrobeat comp should simply be a bonus "thank you" for your minimal contribution.
For 20 years, the Red Hot Organization has been-- along with War Child, more on them in the upcoming days-- the gold standard for the charity album. Battling HIV and AIDS via pop culture, Red Hot came out of the gate with an eclectic winner, the Cole Porter covers record Red Hot + Blue (1990). Most of our readers are likely more familiar with their 1993 No Alternative disc, which collected tracks from Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, and others. Two decades later, they follow with Dark Was the Night, a collection of 31 new and exclusive songs from most of the heavy hitters of the NPR-friendly wing of indie music.
Produced by Red Hot, along with the National's Bryce and Aaron Dessner, the vast majority of the songs on this collection are worth owning regardless of where the money is going. The first of the two CDs, in particular, is full of gems. David Byrne and Dirty Projectors keep their vocal affectations on the right side of awesome on "Knotty Pine"; Feist adeptly teams with Death Cab's Ben Gibbard on a cover of Vashti Bunyan's "Train Song" and later slow burns through the outstanding Grizzly Bear collaboration "Service Bell"; and both Yeasayer's nimble "Tightrope" and My Brightest Diamond's smoky version of "Feeling Good" are eyebrow-raising lateral moves.
A few things that looked a bit too on-the-nose on paper turn out to work: Bon Iver, in the process of breaking away from the lazy "guy in a Wisconsin cabin" narrative, delivers a song about... a small town in Wisconsin; the Books, a half-cello, half-electronics duo, and José González, a Nick Drake-like singer-songwriter still best known for his covers, get together to do Nick Drake's "Cello Song"; Kronos Quartet boldly transform Blind Willie Johnson's gut-wrenching, crucifixion-inspired 1927 blues moan "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" (the track that gives the comp its name) into a chamber ensemble piece.
Not to be outdone by their invitees, the National shout-out Pavement on the languid "So Far Around the Bend", recalling Pavement doing the same to one of their favorite bands (R.E.M.) on No Alternative. Aaron Dessner pairs with Bon Iver for one of the record's several ghostly tracks, "Big Red Machine", while brother Bryce goes one better, teaming with Antony Hegarty to cover Bob Dylan's take of the traditional ballad "I Was Young When I Left Home". Antony in particular shines, giving it a somber matter-of-fact reading that lends the entire song, not just the purgatory of its final verse, a note of tragedy.
Disc One saves its best for last though: Sufjan Stevens breaks his relative silence with a cover of the Castanets' "You Are the Blood", scrapping his baroque preciousness for tactile avant-pop. Infusing the track with a twitchy, restless quality, Stevens re-imagines the song-- musically as well as lyrically-- as a tussle between the subject and his body, an appropriately haunting quality for this compilation. (Buck 65's remix, "Blood Pt. 2", isn't as successful.) Stevens teams a more cacophonous version of his traditional arsenal of horns and choral vocals with the sort of minimalist electronics he leaned more heavily on in the days before he earned indie-level fame.
Disc Two is more of a mixed bag. Spoon kick it off with a badly needed injection of rhythm; their "Well-Alright" feels like the jaunty bar-bandisms that used to soundtrack National Lampoon films-- think "I'm Alright" or "Holiday Road". Arcade Fire follow with a similar but less-interesting version of the same idea. From there things oscillate between meh and engaging, with quality contributions from the New Pornographers (covering one of their bandmate Dan Bejar's Destroyer songs), Yo La Tengo, Riceboy Sleeps (featuring members of Sigur Rós), and Conor Oberst with Gillian Welch.
Standing out even more positively, My Morning Jacket's laid-back "El Caporal" and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings' swivel-hipped Shuggie Otis cover "Inspiration Information" bring warmth to the proceedings; Belle and Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch-- one of the few non-North Americans here-- adds lyrics to an old Scottish folk song, and the resulting "Another Saturday" is one more quiet triumph for him in a career full of them. Best in class on this disc, however, goes to TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek, whose version of the Troggs' "With a Girl Like You" is like a Stephin Merritt pastiche with horns grafted onto it, but it's glorious because of, rather than despite, its obvious homage.
I confess though: My first reaction to listening to this all the way through was negative. When focusing on what's not here rather than what is, Dark Was the Night comes off as a gray, monotone look at the current indie landscape and, as a result, works best in small batches. It's missing not only rhythm and electronics-- more hip-hop, anything in the DFA axis, M.I.A., Animal Collective, etc.-- but volume and velocity as well. Sure, it's a charity record not a party soundtrack, but No Alternative was full of actual rock songs. On this evidence, today's guitar-based indie is primarily folkie tunefulness, baroque lines in which the guitar is subservient to other instruments, or, based on the original Simon Reynolds definition of the word, post-rock: "Using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords."
Dissecting the reasons for this and determining the consequences, if any, is another matter altogether, but it's a shame that the diversity of previously successful charity comps-- the Red Hot ones mentioned, War Child's The Help Album-- is missing here. Naturally these artists are more popular than their experimental, electronic, and rock brethren-- Gang Gang Dance, Air France, or No Age would sell fewer records than the Decemberists on any day of the week-- but the idea that rock is less central than folk music in underground North American music is not only really weird but a very new phenomenon. Again though, these songs are uniformally excellent, so it's a minor and possibly misplaced quibble. And, who knows, maybe-- hopefully!-- Red Hot is in the process of asking the Hold Steady or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Hot Chip or the Knife, to help craft sequels.
— Scott Plagenhoef, February 26, 2009