Dark Was the Night: Red Hot Compilation
The 20th Red Hot compilation Dark Was the Night also arrives during the AIDS charity's 20th anniversary. Curated by the National's Bryce and Aaron Dessner and John Carlin, this double-disc set plays like a who's who of late 2000s indie rock, especially of the mellow and/or folky variety: Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, Feist, Ben Gibbard, and Jose Gonzalez all contribute tracks. Though Carlin and the Dessners didn't specify a particular theme for the project outside of updating traditional themes, Dark Was the Night's first disc is remarkably cohesive. Bon Iver's "Brackett, WI," the Decemberists' "Sleepless," the National's "So Far Around the Bend," and Iron & Wine's "Stolen Houses (Die)" are quintessential examples of what these artists are all about. Many of the brightest moments have a spooky, strangely antique feel, particularly the Kronos Quartet's update of Blind Willie Johnson's title track, which keeps the ruminative soulfulness and grit of the original while transporting it to a very different setting. Antony Hegarty and Bryce Dessner's take on Bob Dylan's "I Left Home When I Was Young" is similarly lonely and haunting, but the real standouts is My Brightest Diamond's ambitious cover of "Feelin' Good," which nods to Nina Simone's classic version while staying true to Shana Worden's chilly yet intimate musical vision. Likewise, Feist's collaboration with Grizzly Bear on "Service Bell" brings out an unearthly, almost unrecognizable side to her voice. Dark Was the Night's second disc is more disjointed, but arguably a more interesting listen -- Spoon's brash "Well-Alright," the Arcade Fire's anthemic "Lenin," and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings' slinky cover of Shuggie Otis' "Inspiration Information" have little in common other than that they're all well-crafted. Skipping from indie hip-hop ("Blood, Pt 2," Buck 65's remix of Sufjan Stevens' cover of Castanets' "You are the Blood" featuring rapper Serengeti) to filmic Americana (Andrew Bird's take on the Handsome Family's "The Giant of Illinois") to roots rock (My Morning Jacket's "El Caporal"), there's little rhyme or reason but lots of entertainment. Other highlights include the Dirty Projects' and David Byrne's "Knotty Pine," Stuart Murdoch's simple and beautiful "Another Saturday," and Blonde Redhead and Devastations' dreamy, unsettling "When the Road Runs Out." Though some of the tracks contributed by Dark Was the Night's artists are a touch too predictable, it's uncharitable to nitpick too much when the collection offers so much music for such a good cause.