Dark Was the Night
4ad Records, 2009
By Giovanni Colantonio
Nearly 20 years ago, the Red Hot Organization was established to fight AIDS by way of music and art. This effort has proved successful, raising over $7 million for AIDS relief through charity music compilations. In the past, these albums have managed to pull together the talents of dozens of artists–from Nirvana to Sonic Youth–for a truly noble cause. Now, in 2009, the Red Hot Organization appears to be ramping up their efforts even further with the release of their latest benefit
compilation, Dark Was The Night. Filled to the brim with some of the biggest names in modern music, the album successfully provides a worthwhile listening experience while raising AIDS awareness.
The first disc (labeled “This Disc”) is a wonderful compilation on its own, independent of its other half (you guessed it–“That Disc”). It’s stuffed with all-star performances and collaborations, from Feist and Ben Gibbard’s haunting take on Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song” to the poppy bliss of The Dirty Projectors and David Byrne’s “Knotty Pine.” It’s really touching to see so many artists come together for such a cause, but it’s even more moving to see them put in such sincere effort. This doesn’t merely feel like a handful of musicians throwing together whatever studio outtakes they found lying around. Instead, there’s an undeniable sense that these artists really put their hearts and souls into these recordings.
This point becomes increasingly more apparent as “This Disc” reaches its second half. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden unleashes her vocal prowess on the jazzy classic “Feeling Good;” Antony Hegarty and The National’s Byce Dessner masterfully tackle Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Went Home;” and Feist even pops up again with Grizzly Bear on a reworking of the band’s own song “Service Bell,” which surpasses the original recording by miles.
While all these tracks are solid contributions, they are nearly eclipsed in the end by two of the disc’s closing pieces. The first is an original song by The Decemberists, “Sleepless.” Even though the Portland-based band were hard at work recording their latest record, they still managed to pump out an eight-minute, orchestral ballad, which is among some of the band’s finest works to date. But what’s most impressive here is the disc’s closer–Sufjan Steven’s 10-minute reworking of Castanet’s “You Are The Blood.” Complete with dreamy piano, triumphant brass and electronic squelches, Sufjan manages to break out of his two-year silence with a dark, epic masterpiece.
Unfortunately, the album’s momentum teeters off-balance after the first disc concludes. While the second half still features some massive names in modern music, it lacks the emotional punch delivered in part one. Spoon kicks things off with “Well Alright,” a title that actually sums up the disc (and song itself) rather well. It’s not that the songs are bad, but compared to how passionate the first disc is they don’t particularly stand out. This is especially disappointing considering the high caliber of some of the bands present are. For example, The Arcade Fire offer up “Lenin,” a new original recorded for the compilation. However, rather than employing complex, layered orchestration, the song relies on a few piano chords and a somewhat boring melody.
And it’s not just the quality of songs that makes Disc 2 the weaker half, but also the way it’s compiled. Disc 1 flows wonderfully and logically from one song to the next. It feels like a complete listening experience. But the sequencing on “That Disc” is far less engaging. Hearing a bright pop song by The New Pornographers after a dark rap song feels more like the work of an iTunes shuffle than a human being.
Despite the quality discontinuity between the discs, Dark Was The Night is an enjoyable collection of songs. Like any compilation, it has hits and misses, but there’s never a particularly painful moment. In the end, the amount of delightful content outweighs the mediocrity. Plus, considering that you’re supporting AIDS awareness by listening to My Morning Jacket and Yo La Tengo, picking up a copy seems painfully obvious.