In its 20th year and in the hands of the National's Dessner Brothers, Red Hot delivers another compilation
If the indie community ever decides to do a re-make of "We Are the World", they should really ask Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National to jump start the volunteer process. Judging by the all-star line-up they were able to secure for Dark Was the Night, they are real go-getters. So, let’s start with the obvious. You should buy this record.
Dark Was the Night is the product of the Red Hot Organization, which has been bringing artists together to raise money for AIDS for 20 years. The records usually revolve around unusual collaborations, which also mean they can really work or really go astray. This collection is the experiment at its finest. It comes in at 30 tracks and includes every a huge range of combinations and collaborations. While some feel forced, most of the tracks are sufficient to satiate you while you await the next release by your favorite artist. More surprising is that despite the disparate artists, songs, and recording conditions, an eerie theme emerges from the two disk collection.
Opening with David Byrne and Dirty Projector’s “Knotty Pine” is a perfect intro. With its dance rhythm and over-reaching vocals, it sets an inspirational tone. It feels like an '80s dance club lost in the woods. The cover of Nick Drake's “Cello Song” by the Books is a bit forgettable. But the performance turned in on the cello itself continues the first CD’s venture into the woods' night.
Ben Gibbard and Feist duet on Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song”, and Feist’s take makes you wish it had been she rather than Scarlett Johnanson who had taken on Tom Waits's catalogue last year. She is lilting and haunting while Gibbard barely whispers behind her. Bon Iver, who seems to be an enduring indie darling already, offers "Brackett, WI" and does not disappoint. Since he apparently records in the woods, authenticity is not the issue with his song. Less expected is Brightest Diamond’s take on Nina Simone’s classic “Feeling Good”. Perhaps it’s the iconic choice or the brass ensemble in the mix, but the feel seems out of step with the starker, bluesy side of the record.
Kronos Quartet delivers the title track, “Dark Was the Night”, and it is far more haunting than anything I have seen on film in years. It is pitch black, bare and pure. The decision to track Anthony and Bryce Dessner’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home” is the disc's most perfect moment. The segue feels natural and inspired. Meanwhile, those eager to hear the new Decemberists record will be thrilled to hear them do “Sleepless”, but it fails to measure up to the excitement of the previous year’s singles collection.
Spoon picks things up with “Alright”, Britt Daniel doing his best impression of an indie gnarl. More Ramones than Spoons-sounding, it kicks off the second disk with more energy than does Byrne with disc one. Cat Power’s choice of a traditional version of “Amazing Grace” is a not-so-subtle reminder that Chan Marshall is as soulful as anyone in her generation. Conor Oberst’s choice to re-release “Lua” is an odd one given that all of his fans own the song already, but vocal re-arrangements with Gillian Welch make it sound fresh. Other contributions comes from the indie all-star teams of the Arcade Fire, the New Pornographers, and My Morning Jacket; all listenable and all generously provided for charity.
It is nearly impossible to put a compilation of 30 songs together and have a true theme, or to avoid a few clunkers. The Brothers Dessner have performed admirably here. Dark Was the Night does more than just keep the Red Hot tradition alive. It sets a new standard.