In an age were albums are viewed as mere speckles on a canvas larger than than Seurat‘s Bathers at AsniÃÅ¡res, Getintothis ponders a collection worthy of closer inspection.
The jist: A charity compilation for Red Hot’s AIDS Benefit Series. Dark Was The Night is the twentieth release, following on from 1993’s seminal No Alternative featuring the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, and is produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National.
Various artists: Dark Was The Night. A Red Hot Compilation – Getintothis classic
1. Dirty Projectors & David Byrne: Knotty Pine
As introductory blasts, there’s few more fitting more than this. From one master of then to a band leading the pack of now, Knotty Pine is a sprightly two minute jaunt which finds Byrne’s wriggling tongue working wonders alongside Amber Coffman‘s high-pitched skip. Really, you’d think they’ve been working together for years. Now there’s a thought. Ace as tits.
2. The Books featuring Jose Gonzalez: Cello Song
The first of several excellent covers, and a track indicative of much of the compilation – rooted in folk and muted electronica. Gonzalez’s hush perfectly mirrors Nick Drake‘s and it’s a vivid, magical interpretation driven by slight, rushing water and that yearning cello.
3. Feist & Ben Gibbard: Train Song
Another ‘lost’ folk legend, this time Vashti Bunyan, has her thread-bare strum given the treatment by the former Broken Social Scener and Death Cab‘s Gibbard. Feist’s power perfectly complementing Gibbard’s understated vocal with a simple flick of acoustic guitar ticking things along.
4. Bon Iver: Brackett, WI
Could have dropped straight off For Emma… Justin Vernon continues to weave his spectral magneticism; a wonderous, cyclical tune which gathers momentum seemingly built on little but the odd strum of steel and light tap of percussion. Lordy only knows what he’s blathering on about but with a voice this good and a subtle flicker of organ it’s a magical turn once again.
5. Grizzly Bear: Deep Blue Sea
The folk run rambles on. And unfortunately Grizzly Bear suffer from the lack of change of pace, direction and somewhat downbeat tone. Daniel Rossen comes on like a wounded Devendra Banhart cooing about ‘that deep blue sea,’ but there’s little to marvel here.
6. The National and Nico Muhly: So Far Around The Bend
A light oompah makes a big difference with this Christmassy jolly up which combines flute and gentle accordian to full effect.
7. Yeasayer: Tightrope
Perhaps the highlight of the first disc as Brooklyn’s finest prove why they’re still the band to keep your ears on. Built round vast electronics which sway in and out of focus, Chris Keating‘s distinctive vocal is slowly swamped by the trademark Yeasayer choral collective as dense chattering drums, slinky guitars and Eastern string harmonics are added to the mix.
It’s spellbinding and after half a dozen listens you’ll find it impossible to stop singing the ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme, until you just can’t give no more,’ refrain.
8. My Brightest Diamond: Feeling Good
Covered extensively, popularised by Nina Simone, but written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, here Shara Worden lends her weighty pipes to this haunting classic. Heavy duty.
9. Kronos Quartet: Dark Was The Night
Blind Willie Johnson‘s Depression-era Blues is transformed by way of plucked viola, cellos and all manner of thrift-store tat (there’s defo a washboard in there) which makes for uncomfortable incidental listening. Effective, if aptly unsettling.
10. Antony & Bryce Dessner: I Was Young When I Left Home
Quite how Antony and Bruce came to the decision to cover Dylan‘s 1961 lost classic is intriguing in itself, that it’s a fantastic reinterpretation is all the more wondrous; Heggarty‘s vocal is a world away from Dylan’s yet it sounds so at home as he curls his way round this ramblin tune.
Bob Dylan: I Was Young When I Left Home
11. Justin Vernon & Aaron Dessner: Big Red Machine
The National brother number two gives Justin a help on vocals as driving Jemima collides with aching strings before the sounds of clogs and jacket zips concludes proceedings.
12. The Decemberists: Sleepless
Nigh on 8-minutes of sorrow. In the context of a Decemberists record this would be mega – indeed, it’d easily slip alongside much of bonza newie Hazards of Love – but here it kinda overstays its welcome and after Colin’s 143rd ‘hand it over,’ you’re left shouting just take it, will ya!‘
13. Iron & Wine : Die
After the mammoth track before it, I&W do the business: one minute of beautiful building bliss.
14. Grizzly Bear & Feist: Service Bell
Grizzly Bear recover after their early stumble with an understated corker; all glistening, crystalised twinkles as Feist comes on all elven in some kind of Joanna Newsom eclectica.
15. Sufjan Stevens: You Are The Blood
Emerging from his mini stay of absence, Sufjan (never one for half measures) pulls out all the stops with a whopping ten-minute cover of the Castanets. Where the Decemberists stick to the script, Sufjan lashes on his usual 120-piece orchestra (obviously) but then goes all Radiohead with warped techno glitches and frenzied piano before going to town with a chaotic jazz funk of brass.
The only thing missing is a monkey’s fart. Incredible. Really.
1. Spoon: Well-Alright
To say the first disc was one-paced (albeit ace) was an understatement, and boy, do Spoon bring the party; all wobbly guitar surferosa, with a carefree lyrical abandon about ‘selling your clothes.’ A vivacious start, which is indicative of the ‘upper’ to the first discs ‘downer’.
2. Arcade Fire: Lenin
Where have Win Butler and co. been? To say, Neon Bible felt like a damp squib would be an understatement in the extreme, but surprisingly this feels like welcoming home an old friend; all jiving piano and Fleetwood Mac driving guitars. Regina‘s vocal is worth the ticket price alone.
3. Beirut: Mimizan
Loads of people love Beirut. It just reminds me of interlude musik on Eurotrash with a wanker in a silly hat about to enter an Eastern bloc strip joint where pale fatties twiddle with their nips in front of slavouring beer bellied lumps.
4. My Morning Jacket: El Caporal
Somewhere along the way Jim James dropped the ball. This feels like more of the same lack lustre MoR he’s been peddling since Z. I feel wrong ripping into one of my old flames but hey, when it goes this bad, you’ve gotta reach for the honesty button.
5. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: Inspiration Information
What’s a Dap King? I want to be one. This recalls times spent going on holiday in Normandy with the folks as jukebox classic soul blurted out wound down windows.
6. David Sitek: With A Girl Like You
This is hilariously ace. Sometimes the mere mention of Sitek‘s name makes me recoil in cool phlegm. He’s everywhere, permeating the soul of every funked up groove on planet Earth, yet it’s hard to knock summat so effortless as this; The Troggs gone hand-clappingly, white-boy ghetto skronk dressed in a lick of fuzztone and copious amounts of soul.
7. Buck 65 Remix (featuring Sufjan Stevens and Serengeti): Blood Pt 2
Reprising Sufjan’s earlier beast, here Richard Terfry zings like Tom Waits on cough syrup, spitting about potted plants and being touched like an old stamp‘.
8. The New Pornographers: Hey, Snow White
Another golden standout. Destroyer‘s track is given a merry twist, the kind you could imagine people singing drunkenly at the best New Year’s send off party.
9. Yo La Tengo: Gentle Hour
Oddly this recalls Pulp‘s Disco 2000 as it shares a similar melody, albeit given YLT’s downbeat swirl. The kind of beautiful suppressed romanticism of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-out as piano’s glide alongside brushed percussion and Ira Kaplan‘s barely-there vocal. Superb.
10. Stuart Murdoch: Another Saturday
Sticking out like a sore thumb, the Belle & Sebastian trooper adds an English injection to this N American-dominated field, and despite it’s lovelyness it gives the second disc a rattling kick up the arse.
11. Riceboy Sleeps: Happiness
Sigur Ros‘ stamp is all over this eight minute gem borrowing elements from their electronica-endorsed Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do to their more conventional string-laden template.
12. Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues: Amazing Grace
Chan’s powerful, whiskey-soaked pipes are always magnificent, but really this saunters along so slug-like you’d be hard pushed to make it through awake. A dud.
13. Andrew Bird: The Giant Of Illinois
Returning to much of the ground covered on the previous disc, Bird’s cover of The Handsome Family is sparse but hauntingly beautiful. The need for some RAWK is a must though, now…
14. Conor Oberst & Gillian Welch: Lua
…And we’re not going to find it here. As Conor and his Nashville cohort cover a Bright Eyes classic. Again, all very lovely – nylon strings ring out loud and proud – but the dearth of rhythm, rhyme or rock results in a weary run-in.
15. Blonde Redhead & Devastations: When The Road Runs Out
Perhaps, more due to the sequencing, this combo suffer due to listener fatigue. All distorted vocal and treated guitars, this is three and a half, long, long minutes.
16. Kevin Drew: Love vs. Porn
An odd finale, BSS mainman completes the record delivering a cracked croak atop of fleeting guitar and gurgling electronics. ‘We’ll get lost,’ he sighs, as events fade to black.
So, that’s that. Dark Was The Night is a weighty, hard-going, Iron Man challenge of a record, which suffers from a lack of massive beats and a dearth of seismic guitar clatter. However, the pros of this compilation far outweigh any negatives such is the brilliance throughout.
Dip in at intervals and you’ll be astounded – Yeasayer, Sufjan, Sitek, The New Pornographers, Dirty Projectors & Byrne, The Books & Gonzalez, Bon Iver and Sharon Jones provide star turns – but there’s so much more.
And really, where else has a compilation in recent times gathered together such first-rate talent. Nowhere.