Dark Was The Night is a fundraiser for the Red Hot Organization, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS, comprising 31 exclusive tracks. Moreover, though, much like a previous Red Hot effort, 1993′s No Alternative (Nirvana, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement, Jonathan Richman), it acts as a snapshot of a certain time and place in North American alternative music (Stuart Murdoch, Devastations, Riceboy Sleeps, Antony Hegarty and Jose Gonzalez company excepted). The record takes in a healthy cross-section of the major players in the scene over the last couple of years; a period of unbridled creativity and critical hosannahs shone upon the music that not so long ago would have been quietly left to fend for its own cult following on the underground. So how do you approach something like this, with no thematic link or stylistic even keel, just a hell of a lot of proven quality intended, as the producers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (of The National) have reinforced, merely as a showcase for “the best in independent music, with an emphasis on traditional themes played and arranged in a contemporary way” (whatever that means)? By throwing traditional review narrative form out of the window and tackling it sequentially, I guess.
So… Dirty Projectors kick off with a David Byrne collaboration that he may have written the words to but in recording doesn’t seem to include David Byrne on anything more than backing vocals, although ‘Knotty Pine’ seems to funnel the wired shuffle of Talking Heads’ first couple of albums to a more straightened out version of Dave Longstreth and co’s eclectic culture surfing. Nick Drake’s ‘Cello Song’ is given The Books’ elegant glitch-folk treatment with Jose Gonzalez on restrained vocals, drifting gorgeously on a digital looped bed. Feist and Ben Gibbard come together on a spare, chiming countrified version of ‘Train Song’ (made semi-famous by Vashti Bunyan) that sounds more like Nancy & Lee than either’s proper work. The development of Bon Iver from solo project to full band expansion while keeping that necessary intimacy continues on ‘Brackett, WI’, brittle guitar and heavenly harmonies this time joined by organ and prominent bass; it wouldn’t have been out of place on the Blood Bank EP. Folk standard ‘Deep Blue Sea’ originally appeared in home recorded lullaby version on Grizzly Bear’s Friend EP last year and reappears fleshed out and warmer, Dan Rossen’s vocals and fingerpicking augmented by woodwind, electronic distortion and percussion. If their forthcoming album takes after this it’ll be unstoppable.
The National themselves take the spotlight next, ‘So Far Around The Bend’ less outwardly emotive than usual in a sawing back porch strum with decorative woodwind frenzy and a song about a woman lost and alone through choice in New York, apparently “praying for Pavement to get back together”. Yeasayer do their expansive otherworldly rhythmic thing a lot better than usual on ‘Tightrope’, and it’s far easier to get excited about than another version of ‘Feeling Good’, especially as My Brightest Diamond adds little to the original arrangement. Title track honours are left to avant garde San Franciscan string section the Kronos Quartet, and once four minutes of plucked string bending has sufficiently tested your patience Antony appears with Bryce Dressner on backup for a fairly perfunctory, vocal pyrotechnic-free version of Dylan’s ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’. Justin Vernon returns with Aaron Dessner backing him up on ‘Big Red Machine’, which pitches Vernon’s multitracked falsetto against insistent piano hammering. It’s an odd juxtaposition but no less intriguing for that. Hard to tell if ‘Sleepless’ is much of a preview of the Decemberists’ rock opera direction, given the stately nearly eight minute rumination sounds like it could have been an offcut from Castaways And Cutouts. Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam gives himself sixty-seven seconds on ‘Stolen Houses (Die)’, which means he’s reduced to vocal and guitar and so can’t ruin it with the soft rock settings of late, while Grizzly Bear and Feist both reappear with a reworking of ‘Service Bell’, originally from the former’s Horn Of Plenty debut album, which with its percussion loops and doo-wop backing vocals actually sounds more like Rossen’s Department Of Eagles, before the first disc closes with something of a war of choral folk attrition, more than ten minutes of Sufjan Stevens. ‘You Are The Blood’ – another cover, apparently – throws a curveball of electronic bleeps for its first thirty seconds and continues in a pattern of underlying electronic effects, samples and and found sounds in the background in a way he hasn’t explored since 2002′s Enjoy Your Rabbit, over which gradually develops a pattern of sympathetic male-female harmonies, cinematic brass and galloping drums before breaking down into cutting up his own vocals and instruments, veering off into heavily reverbed George Harrison piano-led contemplation for a bit, then back to the laptop, then explodimng into joyful brass-led fanfare, then distorted guitar solo over glitches, then solo piano voluntary, then a bit of everything to close. Phew. There’s as many ideas in this one track as those that have followed Sufjan’s path have ever had, and whether one-off playful experiment or signpost as to where he goes whenever he next deigns to record an album – three and a half years since Illinois now – it’s a masterstroke.
Still with it? Good, on to CD 2, which at least initially is something of a disappointment. Even Arcade Fire’s ‘Lenin’ turns the bombast down but ends up sounding more like their pre-Funeral EP, reaching towards something distinct without quite making it. Chief offenders are Beirut, still in underwhelming French mode, and My Morning Jacket, who turn in a song that sounds almost exactly like a British 80s AOR hit that I frustratingly can’t place (helpful, I know). As with most things it takes Dave Sitek to turn things around, who gives the Troggs’ ‘With A Girl Like You’ the fuzzy, synth layered production treatment he’s recently given Telepathe, plus horns and Sitek’s vaguely threatening lower register. Never mind knocking out a cover, Buck 65 reworks a track that’s already been on this compilation, turning Sufjan’s epic into the queasy, gospel choir aided ‘Blood Pt 2′, while the New Pornographers look inside themselves and knock off a version of their own Dan Bejar’s Destroyer’s ‘Hey Snow White’ that allows them to really indulge their AM radio rock fantasies and Yo La Tengo are in one of their relatively subdued Velvets moods on ‘Gentle Hour’. It says here Stuart Murdoch’s ‘Another Saturday’ is to the tune of traditional Scottish folk song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’; whatever, it’s the type of ruminative, personal acoustic lament Murdoch hasn’t recorded in some time, and with references to his church background.
Riceboy Sleeps will be a new name to most but lead member Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Ros won’t be, the eight and a half minutes of slowly shifting and drifting ambient waves almost daring the listener to use those ‘glacial’/'pastoral’ descriptions that have long since been deemed passe when describing Birgisson’s main project. An alt-countrified run starts with Cat Power’s interpretation of ‘Amazing Grace’ which is – shock! – Memphis bluesy and continues with Andrew Bird taking the warmer approach of his current album on as he grants the Handsome Family’s ‘The Giant of Illinois’ lush orchestration alongside his own multi-layered violin plucking and sawing and shimmering guitar, before Conor Oberst scratches a bluegrass country itch duetting with Gillian Welch on a reworked ‘Lua’. It suits him. Blonde Redhead are also in stripped back mode collaborating with shimmering Melbourne outfit Devastations, a laid back, comely Kazu Makino sounding oddly like Black Box Recorder’s Sarah Nixey against distorted piano, and it’s left to Kevin Drew to bring the whole charabanc home with the yearning slowcore of the Low-esque (if not Low-esque titled) ‘Love Vs Porn’.
So no, it doesn’t all work, and even by the nature of “previously unreleased tracks” for something promoting the fresh pickings of the very best available there’s quite a few reworkings and covers. However, despite the first CD being clearly the stronger, the hits clearly outweigh the misses, showing a new possible direction for some (Oberst, Sufjan), bringing the best out of others (Yeasayer, The Books) and doing what it should do, reasserting the claims of some of its most lauded (Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, The National, The Decemberists). This is where – oh, let’s say it – hipster music largely stands in early 2009, and we’re all the better for it.