4AD, 2009

Released in collaboration with AIDS charity the Red Hot Organization, Dark Was The Night is the latest in a long-standing series of compilation albums put together to raise awareness and money in the fight against AIDS. Some of you will remember the first compilation, Red Hot and Blue released in 1990 with its reinterpretations of Cole Porter songs and in particular that cover of Iggy Pop and Deborah Harry singing “Well Did You Evah?”, while others will have a fond spot for No Alternative, the grunge equivalent of Dark Was The Night featuring the prime movers of the day – Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden, which this compilation could be well looked at as the sequel.

Produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National, Dark Was The Night has been two years in the making, so think of it not as some kind of Alternative Band Aid situation, but a careful assembly of the cream of North America’s alternative acts rallying together for a common cause. Featuring the talents of David Byrne, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket,  Spoon, The Decemberists, Cat Power, The New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo, Feist, Bon Iver and many others, who all donate previously unreleased material across 31 tracks and 2CDs. Just the names involved instantly qualifies Dark Was The Night as the compilation album of the year. As such, based on the charity aspect and the calibre of the acts, it’s practically impossible to say a bad thing about the songs. Each artist “brings it” as you would well expect, in the purest sense of who they are and what they do.

Many of the highlights on Dark Was The Night come from the unexpected collaborations that arose when the Dessner brothers began putting the word out. Red Hot veteran David Byrne with Dirty Projectors on “Knotty Pine” immediately establishes a high water mark for the compilation as too Feist and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard’s duet on “Train Song”, and the less unexpected with Gillian Welch and Conor Oberst who sweetly duet together on Oberst’s “Lua”. The Kronos Quartet cover the Blind Willie Johnson song that gives this compilation its name, while Iron & Wine, Grizzly Bear and Bon Iver lay further touches to the over-riding feel of earthy Americana spread across the first disc that not even Sufjan Stevens with his bombastic 10 minute epic “You Are The Blood” can alter.

Of the big names saved for disc two, Arcade Fire return with “Lenin”, their first new recording in two years, moving away from the dark, oppressive feel of Neon Bible. My Morning Jacket add a soft touch on the sax-led swoon of “El Caporal”. Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio faithfully covers The Troggs 1966 #1 hit “A Girl Like You”. New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo are all whispers and flickering shadows on “Gentle Hours”, and Cat Power atypically tackles the religious standard “Amazing Grace” accompanied by her Dirty Delta Blues Band. If you’re familiar with Chan Marshall’s reinvention as a smoky soul singer, then you’ll be able to hear this song in your head without even having to play it. Spooky, huh? It’s only Spoon with “Well Alright”, an irritating drum machine/guitar-led stomp that lets the side down, sounding like it was knocked out in a matter of minutes and duly forgotten about.

That last minor grumble notwithstanding, Dark Was The Night is the perfect example of the current state of contemporary independent music in North America. There’s no better offering out there and there’s unlikely to be another that will give you the same good-deed feeling that goes along with it. There’s really no excuse for you not to own this.