Album Review: Dark Was the Night: Red Hot Compilation – Various Artists
Most posts of Red Hot Organization’s ‘Dark Was the Night’ compilation begin with a summary dismissal of compilations in general, and particularly those in the name of charity. If such projects are as bad as people say, ‘Dark Was the Night’ – one of many produced by the HIV/AIDS awareness charity over the years – must be the exception. At 30-plus tracks, the double album features songs by most of the notable artists on the US indie circuit in recent years, and rather than the ragtag collection of outtakes and B-sides you might have expected, the quality is genuinely high. If, in one sitting, ‘Dark Was the Night’ is a rather too bleakly bucolic – it shows US indie’s current penchant for flickering folk and Amerciana rootsiness – it is certainly better dipped into than taken as a whole. The default atmosphere of sparseness and gloom is oppressive when listened to as a stretch, while the record’s variety is somehow more evident when taken in bite sized chunks.
The roster of artists is so impressive that it is almost defined by who is not present rather than who is: Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes spring to mind as obvious absentees (though Andrew Bird does a good job of recalling the latter on ‘The Giant of Illinois’). TV on the Radio can be forgiven for their absence given that producer-member David Sitek has contributed a curious, Kevin Shields-y take on Troggs’ ‘With a Girl Like You’. There are few total clangers: I never make it past the opening lyrics of Broken Social Scenester Kevin Drew’s weedy ‘Love vs Porn’ – “I woke up and my mouth was a little dry, so I grabbed the moisturiser and tried not to cry” – before I grab the Hi-Fi remote and try not to laugh.
Nitpicking asides, it is the poignantly bittersweet upbeat numbers that really steal the show: compilation curator The National’s ‘So Far Around the Bend’, with its shimmering backwards effects and baroque strings; My Morning Jacket’s maritime ‘El Caporal’; the extraordinary synth pop of Yeasayer’s ‘Tightrope’; the blizzard of French horns on Beirut’s ‘Mimizam’; to name a few. Repeated listens reveal gems among the more ponderous material: the songwriting on Grizzly Bear’s beautiful ‘Deep Blue Sea’ is atypically lucid for them, more akin to their sister act Department of Eagles than their own material to date, but perhaps a taster for their forthcoming – apparently brilliant – ‘Veckatimest’. They also collaborate with Feist to mesmerising effect on ‘Service Bell’. Furthermore, Bon Iver’s murky, dissonant ‘Brackett, WI’ – which sounds like it should have featured on his recent ‘Blood Bank EP’ – and Yo Lo Tengo’s glowing ‘Gentle Hour’, both reveal subtle depths. There’s much more, of course, good and not-so-good, but if you are even the most casual fan of recent US indie you should find plenty to occupy you here.