Benefit compilation albums often fall into one of two categories: superstar-choked, one hit wonder-heavy sequencing nightmares that bastardize the subject matter, or sweeping revues that touch on genre after genre without letting the artists and their music subvert or overshadow the cause.
The disarming Dark Was The Night comp is a perfect example of the latter. The album is filled with performers that work so well together, songs that hew so closely to the comp’s theme, musical and lyrical experiments so bold and interesting, that you can’t help but play the album over and over again. Curated by brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, Dark Was The Night was created to raise funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS through the Red Hot Organization. And even as the music lulls, it never produces apathy. You listen. You love. And you care.
The album consists of two discs and 31 exclusive tracks by just about every indie artist worth mentioning today. Not all of the songs are winners, but most are spot on.
The first half, “This Disc”, launches with three dynamic collaborations. Dirty Projectors and David Byrne kick things off with the stomping, quirky “Knotty Pine”, one of the comp’s best this-will-eventually-be-stuck-in-my-head-forever moments. The Books, fronted by Jose Gonzalez, follow with an upbeat cover of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song”. And the harmonies of Ben Gibbard and Feist on “Train Song” sound so natural, it’s as if the two indie heartthrobs have been collaborating for years.
Elsewhere, Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI” matches the sound everyone fell in love with on For Emma, Forever Ago. Yeasayer is always a fun and interesting listen, and “Tightrope” doesn’t disappoint. If you liked The Decemberists’ Always The Bridesmaid singles series, you’ll enjoy the mid-tempo “Sleepless”. Grizzly Bear/Feist cut “Service Bell”, like its collaborators’ typical fare, is hushed and powerful.
But the real jewel of DWTN’s first half is its final track, Sufjan Stevens’ “You Are The Blood”. The divine assembly of Stevens’ 10-minute electro-folk epic left me speechless the first eight times I listened. The original song — by Stevens label mate Castanets — was already eerily poignant. Now, Stevens’ arrangement brings the chills. He experiments with what sounds like every instrument imaginable — a sign of future state albums, perhaps? — yet the song ends up sounding perfectly thought out. There’s even a bit of Radiohead circa Kid A in the track. It’s genius.
“That Disc” isn’t quite as strong as its companion. It features the most disappointing song of the compilation, Arcade Fire’s completely phoned in “Lenin”, which threatens the goodwill of the second disc simply by virtue of its early placement in the tracklist.
But the second half recovers with Riceboy Sleeps’ ethereal “Happiness”, an orchestral float that will no doubt lull you to sleep just like Sigur Ros might have before they went pop — incidentally, Riceboy Sleeps began as a Sigur Ros side project in 2003. Cat Power’s arrangement of traditional church tune “Amazing Grace” sounds more like it belongs in the opening sequence of The Sandlot than on an indie compilation, but it’s a nice break from the somewhat melancholy sounds of others on the album.
Two collaborations really stand out on the second disc — one completely expected and the other out of left field. Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch sing a heartfelt ode to alcoholism and torn relationships on “Lua”, from Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning LP. And on “Blood, Pt. 2” Buck 65 remixes Sufjan Stevens’ earlier offering with Serengeti. Ever wondered what Stevens + hip hop might sound like? Well, there you go.
Other second disc highlights include Yo La Tengo’s cover of “Gentle Hour” — exactly what we softies have been waiting to hear from them — Spoon’s new wave-ish “Well-Alright” and The New Pornographers’ “Hey, Snow White”. Andrew Bird’s “The Giant of Illinois” and “Mimizan” by Beirut deserve your full attention.
Dark Was The Night stands above most cause-related compilations because the artists assembled by the Brothers Dessner understand their place. They weren’t called to preach about AIDS awareness. They weren’t commissioned to lend star power to the battle against a grave disease. They were simply asked to do what they do best — make great music for the greater good. And that’s all it takes to make a great benefit compilation. (4AD, 2009)
By Whitney Pettyjohn