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Music Review: Dark Was The Night (A Red Hot Compilation)

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For 31 straight days leading up to its February 17, 2009 release, the Red Hot Organization that brought you the AIDS/HIV awareness compilation No Alternative in the early 1990s, streamed all 31 tracks from its newest release Dark Was The Night (4AD) on its myspace page.

This indie hipster-based compilation’s promotion and music got the attention of the blogosphere and mp3/music video blog Stereogum in particular. The fact that two members of indie rockers The National produced this release was not lost on anyone taking a serious look at its contents. And as on No Alternative, there is no shortage of underground or emerging mainstream alternative rock and alt-country talent on these two discs.

The offbeat-yet-still-jumpy Dirty Projectors track “Knotty Pine,” featuring guest vocals by one of the fathers of alternative music David Byrne, gets disc one off to a feel good, albeit brief start, coming in at under two-and-a-half minutes. The male/female duos continue in good measure with indie superstar Leslie Feist teaming with Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard for the acoustic cover of Alasdair Clayre’s “Train Song.” The creepy chords and undertones of this folk tune come off sounding like a naked cover of a Eurythmics hit, namely “Sweet Dreams.”

The dark acoustic “Deep Blue Sea,” by experimental folkies Grizzly Bear keeps things moving along at a quiet pace, as the lone beat of the tune is supplied by what sounds like the equivalent of the crack of a wooden baseball bat. But The Nationals’ own foot-thumpin’ contribution “So Far Around The Bend” brightens up the mood significantly, with its twinkling electronics, organ and strings.

Spoon’s simple, fast-picked nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and minimal drums on “Well-Alright” and The Arcade Fire’s hip-shakin’ boogie “Lenin,” which stars Regine Chassagne (wife of Win Butler), gets disc two of Dark Was The Night off to a much needed uplifting start and groove. Southern rock powerhouse My Morning Jacket checks in with a surprisingly hooky pop ballad on “El Caporal,” one that features lead guitarist Carl Broemel on saxophone throughout. Beirut, Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo and New Pornographers also make worthy contributions to this compilation.

The Conor Oberst/Gillian Welch duet on folky ballad “Lua,” a Bright Eyes/Oberst fan favorite, adds new, pleasant, and some would say sweeter character to an already fantastic song. It has lovely and newly added acoustic guitar licks throughout as well. In fact, this song is the highlight of the compilation for me, with its Neil Young Harvest Moon-like beauty. Why it was put on the backend of the second disc is dumbfounding. Given that both Oberst and Welch are well known in their respective musical realms, the tune deserved top billing on either disc, for sure.

The compilation is nearly 130 minutes long, but there aren’t more than a couple of tunes you might want to take a pass on either disc, most notably Kevin Drew’s too sleepy and silly “Love vs. Porn” that closes out disc two, and the exotic Kronos Quartet cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night” on disc one — not because it’s a bad tune. It just doesn’t fit that well with the rest of artists (even though this compilation is named after the tune).

To get 31 exclusive and mostly listenable tracks from a variety of indie and well-respected alternative rock artists is a major accomplishment for the Red Hot Organization, given that it has been putting out compilations like this for twenty years to raise awareness and funds for such a noble cause as AIDS/HIV. If all you have to worry about is what order of tracks to listen to instead of what tracks, you’ve accomplished your mission. So pick up this most excellent collection of all-star talent as an mp3 download, 2-CD or triple vinyl purchase at a store of your choice. It is highly recommended.

For more info, visit the Dark Was The Night website.

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About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA); Featured in Guitar World May 2014. See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.
  • Dusty Somers

    Really solid compilation without much fluff at all. You’re right, the Welch/Oberst collaboration is beautiful.