Back in December when I first saw the list of contributing artists on a press release from legendary indie label 4AD for their charity compilation Dark Was The Night, I was floored. The list reads like a veritable Who’s Who of indie rock in 2009, or at least the folky and/or high profile American/Canadian subsection of it. The disc notably features some great duets between some of the biggest names in independent music today. Here’s the alphabetical list of performers as it appeared on the release:
Antony + Bryce Dessner
Blonde Redhead + Devastations
Bon Iver & Aaron Dessner
The Books featuring Jose Gonzalez
Buck 65 Remix (featuring Sufjan Stevens and Serengeti)
Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues
Dirty Projectors + David Byrne
Feist + Ben Gibbard
Grizzly Bear + Feist
Iron & Wine
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings
My Brightest Diamond
My Morning Jacket
The New Pornographers
Conor Oberst & Gillian Welch
Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio)
Yo La Tengo
All together, there are 31 tracks of new material and cover songs, all recorded specifically for this compilation. The project was produced by The National members Aaron and Bryce Dessner to benefit Red Hot, a charity dedicated to AIDS prevention and relief (also responsible for other fifteen other compilations, such as 1993’s No Alternative).
It’s very difficult to review a compilation of this scope, and I don’t have the tme or inclination to provide a track by track review, but let me start by saying that it is almost uniformly excellent. There are very few throwaway tracks here, and the vast majority of the songs are fully realized, album ready gems. Disc 1 is a very mellow affair, but it never gets boring. Standouts include Feist and Ben Gibbard performing an inspired cover Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song,” original Bon Iver tune “Brackett, WI,” The National’s “So Far Around The Bend,” Antony Hegarty’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home, and Sufjan Stevens covering the Castanets’ “You Are The Blood” . Okay, the whole first disc is pretty great!
Disc 2 kicks off with a powerhouse combo. Spoon’s “Well-Alright” is a catchy, stripped down bit of Buddy Holly punk. Next up is the Arcade Fire, contributing a typically bombastic cut in “Lenin,” followed by Beirut’s easily recognizable squeezebox ditty “Mimizan.” Next up is My Morning Jacket’s gorgeously laid-back “El Caporal.” I could keep going, but practically everything here is well done (special extra shout out to Andrew Bird’s “The Giant of Illinois”). Cat Power’s “Amazing Grace” is a bit straight forward and disappointing, Disc 2 as a whole feels a bit less cohesive than Disc 1, and there are a few instrumentals on each disc that I could do without, but there’s very little else to complain about.
Some may be miffed that large swaths of the indie rock community are left off of this compilation (Punk? Noise rock? Electronic? Metal? Hip hop? Europeans?), and others may be turned off by the generally slower, more laid-back pace. This is not a risky bunch of recordings, but it’s not meant to be. The overall effect of the record is that a bunch of indie rock heavyweights came together to have a good time and record some great music with their friends. On top of that, they did it all for a good cause, to help prevent and provide relief for one of the most devastating diseases of the modern age. Right now, Dark Was The Night is avaialable through Amazon.com’s download service for $11.99 (it was $9.99 just yesterday!). At that price, you would be a fool not to own it.
Feist and Ben Gibbard – “Train Song”
As an added bonus, here is a video of Vashti Bunyan performing the song that would later become “Train Song.” It’s called “17 Pink Sugar Elephants,” and I think I prefer it with these lyrics. Amazing how her voice has barely changed in over 40 years. Enjoy!
Vashti Bunyan – “17 Pink Sugar Elephants”