Benefit albums, like the Oscars and New Year’s parties, are usually a mixed bag. The latest Red Hot compliation, Dark Was The Night, is no exception. The difference with Dark is that its high points are quite high, and plentiful.
Red Hot is an international charity founded to raise awareness for HIV and AIDS through music and pop culture. To commemorate its 20th year, Red Hot released Dark, an indie rock all-star gathering produced by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National. The 31 songs are split onto two discs; we’ll carry the all-star analogy a bit further and compare disc one ( “That Disc”) to the Western Conference NBA All-Stars and disc two ( “This Disc”) to the Eastern Conference.
Both discs feature top-notch talent, but where disc one coheres into a thematic whole (think of Chris Paul orchestrating a fluid offense of Kobe Bryant, Amare Stoudemire and Brandon Roy) disc two never quite becomes more than the sum of its parts — like, say, a Mike Brown-coached squad with LeBron James and Dwayne Wade but Allen Iverson and Mo Williams at point guard, two guys who will look for their own shot regardless of who’s on their team. Meanwhile, every other player on the floor thinks, “We’ve got LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and none of our point guards want to pass me the ball, so what am I here for?” In this analogy, Arcade Fire and Andrew Bird are James and Wade, respectively, and while they both turn in solid performances (especially Wade –er, Bird– covering the Handsome Family’s “The Giant of Illinois”), nobody else quite picks up the slack even though there’s talent to burn. Spoon delivers a buzzy but disposable opener ( “Well Alright”) while The New Pornographers never quite go to eleven on “Hey, Snow White.” Beirut and Yo La Tengo deliver solid numbers (“Mimizan” and “Gentle Hour,” respectively) and Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch contribute a beautiful duet ( “Lua”), but Cat Power butchers “Amazing Grace” and My Morning Jacket gets in touch with its soft jazz/lounge lizard side on “El Caporal.” Lots of talent but little chemistry: we’ll jump sports and call disc two the New York Yankees of indie rock benefit albums.
The standouts on disc one are a fantastic cover of Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song” by Feist and Zooey Descanel’s future husband, Ben Gibbard; Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI” (Ben’s vote for album MVP); The National’s “So Far Around the Bend”; Yeasayer’s “Tightrope”; and an operatic, ten-minute, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cover of the Castanets’ “You Are The Blood” by Sufjan Stevens. Disc one is a little darker, a little gloomier, but without question the disc that will stay with you longer, and that — if you’re like us — you’ll keep coming back to. (We’ve had “Brackett, WI” — which you can hear on the Dark Is The Night homepage — on repeat for the past 30 minutes.)
Finally, the album art is pretty sweet. It features Gustave Dore’s illustrations for Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” gothic angels and demons in anguished conflict. As Aaron Dessner says in the liner notes, the images “evoke a ‘fallen’ world of struggle, but also the capacity of art to inspire us to rise above the obstacles put in our path. Our nights may be dark, but music gives us inspiration and hope of brighter days to come.” Good music. Good cause. It’s a no-brainer.