CD Review of Dark Was the Night by Various Artists
Various Artists: Dark Was the Night
Recommended if you like
Feist, Grizzly Bear, The Decemberists
Label
4AD
Various Artists:
Dark Was the Night

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
he Red Hot Organization didn’t invent the star-studded charity compilation album, but they have helped redefine it. For nearly two decades, Red Hot compilations have been bringing together artists to help raise money for AIDS research, and they’ve turned out some classic performances in the process, not to mention some of the few various-artists collections that manage to hold together as consistent album-length listens (1990’s Red Hot + Blue, 1993’s No Alternative, and 2002’s Red Hot + Riot spring to mind). Now, to celebrate the charity’s 20th anniversary, they’re releasing their 20th compilation – and in typical RHO fashion, it’s a doozy.

Dark Was the Night is a sprawling, two-disc collection that collects some of the most blog-friendly names in indie pop for over two hours of music. The list of participating artists reads like a Pitchfork editor’s wet dream: David Byrne, Feist, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Yeasayer, My Brightest Diamond, Antony Hagerty, the Decemberists, Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard are just some of the names you’ll find, and that’s only on the first disc. In terms of buzz, this is probably the biggest project RHO has mounted since No Alternative.

The music, of course, could easily be another story; no matter how high-profile the artists or well-intentioned the cause, compilations like this one are often hit-or-miss affairs, with the emphasis sadly on "miss." Dark Was the Night, however, holds together admirably well – particularly the first disc, which focuses on the more downbeat tracks, with the exception of "Knotty Pine," an immediately gratifying collaboration between Dirty Projectors and David Byrne. After "Pine’s" bubbly piano and strident beat, Dark’s first half cools down, in a good way: The Books and José González add a beat and some gentle, spidery synths to Nick Drake’s "Cello Song," Feist and Gibbard (singing in his lower register) duet on Vashti Bunyan’s "Train Song," Bon Iver contributes some of his trademark floaty, fuzzy folk with "Brackett, WI," Grizzly Bear’s "Deep Blue Sea" experiments with jaunty dissonance, and Yeasayer’s "Tightrope" compensates for Chris Keating’s painful singing with a big sound, bright hook, and gently propulsive melody.

It isn’t all good – My Brightest Diamond’s cover of Nina Simone’s "Feeling Good" is just faithful enough to be unnecessary, and inferior enough to be annoying, while the Kronos Quartet’s cover of the Blind Willie Johnson-penned title track is atonal and pretentious; the Decemberists’ "Sleepless" is a dishwater-dull dirge, and Iron & Wine’s minute-long "Stolen Houses (Die)" is barely a song – but the bulk of the first disc runs the gamut from good to excellent, with Antony and Bryce Dessner’s achingly beautiful cover of Dylan’s "I Was Young When I Left Home" providing a particular high point. Sufjan Stevens closes out the first 15 tracks with a cover of the Castanets’ "You Are the Blood" that will polarize listeners – you’ll either think it’s amazing or wonder if Stevens has lost the ability to tell the difference between cacophony and grandeur.

The second set of tracks, while not as cohesive, offers a lineup every bit as impressive: Spoon, Arcade Fire, Beirut, My Morning Jacket, Sharon Jones, the New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Andrew Bird, Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch, and Blonde Redhead are all present and accounted for, and that list doesn’t even cover everyone. You definitely get the feeling that Dark curators Aaron and Bryce Dessner (of the National) sort of gave up trying to weave the compilation’s disparate artistic threads tightly here; this half feels less like an album and more like a the various-artists hodgepodge it is, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when you’re dealing with artists as talented as Sharon Jones, who contributes the Shuggie Otis cover "Inspiration Information," and Gillian Welch, who manages to coax a non-annoying performance out of duet partner Conor Oberst on "Lua." Cat Power’s cover of "Amazing Grace," delivered with Dirty Delta Blues, is as beautifully ethereal as you’d expect, and Sigur Rós side project Riceboy Sleeps contributes a tunefully ambient number that proves Windham Hill can sound cool.

As with the first disc, not everything works; for instance, Yo La Tengo’s cover of Snapper’s "Gentle Hour" is just boring, and Andrew Bird’s cover of the Handsome Family’s "The Giant of Illinois" is wafer-thin (although hearing it on the same album as "Knotty Pine" does help to underscore the vocal similarities between Bird and David Byrne). The second disc also includes the album’s worst contribution: "When the Road Runs Out," a collaboration between Blonde Redhead and the Devastations, sounds like something the Shaggs might have come up with if they’d had one more music lesson. Still, all in all, this is a supremely compelling collection of music for a wonderful cause – and it offers 130 minutes of music in exchange for your $13 (or $10 through Amazon’s MP3 store), which is the kind of value we can all appreciate during the bailouts ‘n’ layoffs era. Even if a cure for AIDS is discovered tomorrow, here’s hoping the Red Hot compilations keep going strong.

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