No Charity Case
There’s no listening experience quite as awful as a compilation album. Oh, wait, there’s actually something worse: a charity compilation album. The musical equivalent of bubble-and-squeak, CD compiles are unappetising hodge-podges of artistic leftovers; songs not good enough to be b-sides thrown together, seemingly at random. And when such laziness is in the name of a good cause, things’re their most dire. Which is what makes Dark Was the Night a quiet revolution.
An AIDS-fighting fundraising double-disc assembled by the guitar-playing Dessner brothers from New Yorker moodists The National, Dark Was the Night is an attempt to rewrite the musical rule-book; to curate a compilation more concerned with good music than a good cause.
To aid them in the cause, the Dessners have enlisted the help of every single critically-acclaimed indie-rock act in existence. You think I’m joking, but, um, try: the Arcade Fire, Spoon, The Decemberists, Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Beirut, Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens, Antony, Conor Oberst, the New Pornographers, Cat Power, Yo La Tengo, Feist, Yeasayer, My Morning Jacket, TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, and Riceboy Sleeps, the side-project of Sigur Rós’ Jón Þór Birgisson. There’s more, too, but right now that list is making my brain hurt.
Of course, just because Dark Was the Night is loaded with upstanding artists doesn’t guarantee that it’s a worthwhile album. For all its Grizzly Bear and Bon Iver, two questions still linger: Are the tracks on here good? And: Do they play well alongside each other? The answers are, I’d say: mostly; and: err, mostly.
On a comp 31 songs long, there’s bound to be standouts. And, sure enough, from Iron & Wine’s stripped-down one-minute death-folk lullaby, to Sufjan Stevens’ ambitious ten-minute electro-splattered modern-compositional explosion, Dark Was the Night comes correct with many a cut of stand-alone worth.
There’s Dirty Projectors and David Byrne wedding their respective art-pop quirks in collaboration, Antony warbling a tender version of Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home,” Sitek turning The Troggs from sunny to sullen, The New Pornographers pillaging from within and doing a Destroyer tune as pure pop-song celebration, Bon Iver forging further into snowbound environs both figurative and literal on the weepy “Brackett, WI.”
Weighing the Slate
And, whilst an air of folkie-ish, interpretive ‘Americana’ hovers over much of the mostly-impressive proceedings, there are songs that don’t quite fit. Like Yeasayer’s “Tightrope,” whose fusion-ist junkyard sounds and cosmic soul is such a standout that it, like, stands out way too much. So do Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' Shuggie Otis cover, a slice of tender rhythm-and-blues, Buck 65’s Sufjan Stevens ‘re-interpretation’, whose hip-hop beats somehow sound embarrassing in this context, or Stuart Murdoch’s “Another Saturday,” a typically winsome slice of smartly-penned pop-songmanship from the Belle & Sebastian frontman; whose bookish tweeness and fey Scots accent both don’t jib with the Dark Was the Night majority.
Other songs are just bad: Cat Power’s dead-eyed MOR take on “Amazing Grace” furthering the notion that Chan Marshall’s entered the artless ‘lounge-bar’ stage of her once-brilliant career; the impossibly grating My Brightest Diamond living up to form; and Yo La Tengo seemingly offering a jam from soundcheck. They’re evidence that even a comp loaded with big names can come upon dud tracks.
Yet, there’s way more good than bad here; and, truth be told, maybe even more great than good. Taken as whole, Dark Was the Night doesn’t manage to feel like an ‘album’ by any stretch; a measure which any compile will find nearly impossible to measure up to. But, as far as compact-digital compilations go, ones this big, this important, this loaded with killer material are the rarest of birds.
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: 17 February 2009