Thursday, February 19, 2009

Various Artists - Dark Was the Night

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Compilation charity albums are frequently a mixed bag of odds and ends, with a couple gems sprinkled in among the more lackluster musical curiosity pieces. Although the noble intentions of these albums are commendable, the actual finished product is frequently underwhelming. Something along the lines of the supremely disappointing Vic Chesnutt tribute too often seems to be the norm. Released when there was actually some buzz about Chesnutt breaking into the mainstream, artists like R.E.M. and Sparklehorse offered revelatory interpretations of Chesnutt tunes alongside turgid reworks from the likes of lightweights like Live, Garbage, and, ugh, Hootie and the Blowfish.

Produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National and benefiting the AIDS awareness organization Red Hot, Dark Was the Night fortunately contains none of these drawbacks. Simply put, it just might be the best compilation released this decade: ecstatic press materials and Uncut previews comparing it to the seminal No Alternative aren't as outlandish or excessive as they appear at first blush. Though the enduring mystique of No Alternative has perhaps caused some of its flaws to be overlooked - along with quality tracks by Nirvana, Pavement, Sonic Youth and Uncle Tupelo among others, it also included duds from Goo Goo Dolls, Matthew Sweet and Buffalo Tom- Dark Was the Night might be destined for a similar canonization. It boasts a stellar cast of indie artists, including Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Cat Power and Kevin Drew, as well as a few old-timers like Yo La Tengo, David Byrne and Stuart Murdoch.

Although only the most devoted - and perhaps uncritical - music fans will like all the songs included here, the two discs offer a solid cross section of indie music's often divergent trends and styles. Though the album covers such a broad spectrum, the sequencing works; rarely does the album sound like a disjointed collection of singles you'll never hear on mainstream radio. Of the more frenetic tracks included, opener "Knotty Pine" by Dirty Projectors and David Byrne, "Lenin" by Arcade Fire and "You Are the Blood" by Sufjan Stevens are the most memorable, with Stevens transforming the Castanets original into a 10 minute mass of distortion and fuzz that's a radical departure from his more straightforward and melodic "States" albums. Yet the most affecting songs are those rooted in an acoustic sensibility. Grizzly Bear's simple "Deep Blue Sea," Iron and Wine's "Stolen Houses (Die)" and final track "Love vs. Porn" by Kevin Drew are among the starkest songs included, featuring little more than hushed guitars and creaky vocals. Conor Oberst's song of sordid hookups and morning after regrets "Lua" carries a similar tone and is sung as a duet with Gillian Welch, whose addition offsets Oberst's tendency to periodically wallow in self pity. "El Caporal" from My Morning Jacket is built around a catchy melody and horns, while The National's dryly humorous "So Far Around the Bend" is bouncy and also prominently features violins.

A number of cover songs are also included and mostly remain faithful to the original versions. The Books and Jose Gonzalez offer a strong interpretation of Nick Drake's "Cello Song," Dave Sitek of TV On the Radio transforms the Troggs' "With a Girl Like You" into an unholy union of shoegaze and drone and Kronos Quartet provides an instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson song that gives this compilation its name. Perhaps the standout cover is Antony and Bryce Dessner's take on the obscure Bob Dylan song "I Was Young When I Left Home." Foregoing the radical and bombastic approach that has been the ruin of countless Dylan covers, Antony's vocals are similar in style to Dylan's, and Dessner's guitar arrangement also remains faithful to the original. Dylan's bleak song resonates because of its simplicity; both Antony and Dessner seem to recognize this and avoid bludgeoning the song with extraneous clutter.

Dark Was the Night isn't perfect - with over 30 songs, how could it be? - but it does offer a remarkable snapshot of today's indie music scene and its various styles. Though notables such as Okkervil River and Animal Collective are absent, it's hard to squabble with the overall results. For those unfamiliar with modern indie music, it's a good starting point. And for those psychotically dedicated indie musos among us, it's an essential purchase.

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