Various Artists - Dark Was The Night (Red Hot Organisation/4AD, 2009)
As the very endearing character JJ from Skins might put it – ‘oh my giddy, giddy aunt!’ ‘Dark Was The Night’ is a charity compilation curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National for the Red Hot AIDS awareness organisation. As someone who has contributed music to a charity album myself, I strongly support Red Hot’s contention that music can be a positive force for social change. Quite how much awareness a group of North American artists can raise in the areas where it’s most needed is probably a moot point but the project is undoubtedly a worthy one. It’s a rare charity undertaking where quality is in the ascendancy rather than vanity. Having quite this much excellent music spread across two discs is in itself really rather wonderful.
It features a whole host of inspired artists demonstrating that North American music is currently in remarkably vibrant health. The Dessners are clearly very well connected – but attempts to assert this as some kind of scene seem a little far-fetched. You could make the case for the thriving Brooklyn groups and there’s the predictable host of Canadian artists too. Inevitably, composer and string arranger du jour Nico Muhly also makes a contribution. Quite where Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, Buck 65 and the Kronos Quartet fit into this spectrum is anyone’s guess but the set coheres surprisingly well.
The compilation has no concept as such, beyond showcasing independent artists refashioning traditional themes in a contemporary way. Mercifully, this rubric doesn’t preclude original compositions, although almost everything here borrows something from the great American folk tradition. The first disc is presented as the darker of the two discs, inspired by Blind Willie Johnson’s piece that gives the project its title and which the Kronos Quartet present in a decidedly avuncular manner. Some of the contributions to this disc are indeed quite theatrical and morose. The second disc is supposedly lighter and brighter, although it certainly has its fair share of quietly affecting moments.
The set opens with some dream collaborations. First of all, David Byrne teams up with the marvellous Dirty Projectors. ‘Knotty Pine’ actually turns out to be a good deal more conventional than might be expected, but its syncopated rhythms are in keeping with Dave Longstreth’s lurching, confusing style of composition. Its chorus could almost be described as infectious – one wonders if this is the influence of Byrne’s melodic maturity, or whether it hints at a poppier direction for Longstreth’s forthcoming albums. The Books work with Jose Gonzalez on an electronic version of Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ that sounds exactly as you’d hear it in your dreams. Perhaps the best of these meeting of minds is Feist duetting with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard on a lovely version of Vashti Bunyan’s ‘Train Song’, which is thoroughly Americanised with a surprising infusion of the blues.
Other specially commissioned collaborations later in the disc include Aaron Dessner and Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) which somehow manages to combine the bourbon-soaked wistfulness of The National with Vernon’s appetising introspection. Those clamouring for Antony Hegarty to find a new context for his over-exposed voice need look no further than his beguiling version of Dylan’s ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’, accompanied by the feathery pluckings of Bryce Dessner. Perhaps its overkill to have Feist crop up again, but the exquisite and mysterious backdrop provided for her by Grizzly Bear (whose new album I am eagerly anticipating) on ‘Service Bell’ works perfectly.
There are original compositions from Bon Iver (‘Brackett, WI’ is a dirtier, more rhythmically driven take on his majestic choral wonders) and Yeasayer. The latter are on solid form, with ‘Tightrope’ as percussive, intricate and fascinating as anything on ‘All Hour Cymbals’. It is, however, perhaps the hardest track to reconcile with the folk tradition that informs the collection as a whole. As with most of the group’s music, it draws on a diverse and unpredictable array of unfashionable influences.
Perhaps the most striking contrast on the album is established by the juxtaposition of The Decemberists’ ‘Sleepless’, one of their more extravagant ballads, with ‘Die’, a contribution from Iron and Wine so brief it would be easy to skip past it altogether. Sam Beam’s voice sounds bolder and more forthright than usual here and the song is so stark and simple as to lack his usual lyrical flights of fancy. It’s an interesting diversion for a talented writer.
My Brightest Diamond’s interpretation of ‘Feeling Good’ (originally from ‘Roar of the Greasepaint’ but arguably most closely associated with Nina Simone) is mercifully a good deal more subtle than Muse’s ghastly demolition of it. In fact, it’s a rather haunting and memorable deconstruction of a song usually delivered much more emphatically.
The track most likely to catch people’s attention (and divide opinion) is Sufjan Stevens’ uncharacteristically overcooked ten minute rendering of The Castanets’ ‘You Are The Blood’. It’s particularly interesting for reintroducing Stevens’ electronic preoccupations, something not heard since his bizarre ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’ album. This acts as the album’s grand centrepiece, reappearing as it does in radically reimagined form in the second disc by hip hop artist Buck 65. Stevens has clearly gone to more effort than most here – there’s seemingly nothing he hasn’t thrown into this precocious melting pot. It has an elaborate brass section, immediately followed by a classical piano cadenza (is this played by Stevens himself?). You can’t fault him for ambition but, to my mind, it’s a strangely self-conscious addition to his impressive output.
The second disc is never quite as wilfully unpredictable, but it has many pleasures. Arcade Fire contribute ‘Lenin’, a reduced budget version of their orchestrated chugging which has the benefit of sounding as if it would be more at home on ‘Funeral’ than on ‘Neon Bible’. Similarly, Zach Condon delivers an accordion and brass band offcut that could have sat quite comfortably on ‘The Flying Club Cup’. There’s nothing in any way revelatory about either, and they feel more at home as part of their artists’ already established catalogues than on this compilation, but both are dependably enjoyable.
The second disc contains two solid gold gems. My Morning Jacket’s ‘El Caporal’, recorded back in 2007 before the unfortunate ‘Evil Urges’, proves where their more fertile and comfortable ground lies. This is a swaying country-tinged saloon-bar ballad, with some strange lyrics (‘I just hope, love, that my kisses will linger/On your sweet, confused captain’s face’) and a swooning, lovely vocal from Jim James. It teeters on the brink of schmaltz but stays the right side throughout. It’s perhaps most closely related to James’ sterling version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Goin’ To Acapulco’ from the ‘I’m Not There’ soundtrack.
The second gem sees violinist and troubadour Andrew Bird taking on one of my favourite songs of all time, The Handsome Family’s ‘The Giant of Illinois’. It can’t be coincidence that my favourite Bird tracks are both Handsome Family covers, and this is every bit as flavoursome as his magisterial version of ‘Don’t Be Scared’. His skill is to reshape the melody completely, without losing the power and melancholy of the original. It remains a sweet fable in his capable hands and his music is much more palatable when divorced from his self-conscious, ultimately rather meaningless lyrics. Rennie Sparks is mercifully a much more direct, generous and insightful storyteller, and her words fit perfectly on this project.
Of the rest, New Pornographers offer up ‘Hey, Snow White’, a Dan Bejar song that is oddly more in keeping with Carl Newman’s ornate pop songcraft than with his usual verbose streams of consciousness. Stuart Murdoch reworks ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ into a contemporary folk song of his own, whilst Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ faithful but groovy rendering of Shuggie Otis’ superb ‘Inspiration Information’ sticks out here like a sore thumb, albeit in a good way. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings team up with Coner Oberst for a version of the latter’s ‘Lua’. Oddly, I find myself preferring the original in spite of all my reservations about Oberst and his histrionics. It seemed more brutally honest and intimate than this more straightforward and restrained version, although if this is a sign that Welch and Rawlings are finally springing back into action that would be most welcome indeed. Is it inappropriate or all-too-appropriate that an AIDS awareness project should end with Kevin Drew’s surprisingly wistful ‘Love vs. Porn’?
‘Dark Was The Night’ is an intelligently compiled selection of riches, from a wide variety of excellent artists. Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s sterling work here may well direct me to see The National in a different light, as they clearly have a thorough understanding of American musical tradition as well as being well connected with its contemporary flourishing. Comparisons will inevitably be made with ‘No Alternative’ that other great Red Hot compilation that featured the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Many of those bands had already become iconic. With the exception of Arcade Fire, there’s nobody here with that kind of devoted following and subsequent influence. Yet what ‘Dark Was The Night’ amply demonstrates is that the various pockets of brilliance in modern American music can combine to create something noble and meaningful. Could Britain have produced something this impressive? Who might have organised it?