Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Dark Was The Night ****
Compilation albums have always been a mixed bag. It's a really hard thing to make a great album out of seemingly random assortments of songs that were never meant to be with each other in the first place. This may be the reason why the once-in-a-while great compilation will become as great as regular albums. Buzzcock's Singles Going Steady, The Smiths' Louder Than Bombs and Joy Division's Substance are great examples of compilation albums done right. Even harder is making a compilation featuring several different artists. You have several different musicians with several different styles. Do you really expect something awesome to come out of this? That's why compilation albums like this are meant for charity and promotion. Come for the stars; stay for a message. Last year's War Child compilation Heroes was like this, filled with a totally random assortment of artists doing rather awkward and somewhat obvious covers (The Hold Steady covering Bruce Springsteen is the best example, also a redundancy on behalf of the band).
Now here we have Dark Was the Night, a compilation organized by the Red Hot Organization, a group dedicated to raising awareness about AIDS. This is their 20th compilation album since 1989. Unlike War Child's Heroes compilation, the Red Hot compilations are focusing within a genre. The last album the organization realeased, 2002's Red Hot+Riot, focused on Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti. Silenco=Muerte focused on the Latin rock scene. The new compilation will arguably be the most successful because it features prominent indie artists, ironically the most mainstream thing the organization has done. Of course, Red Hot is not falling to the lowest common denominator, because Dark Was the Night is an incredibly strong album, with these artists putting their hearts into each song, whether it's theirs or not. Like the title suggests, Dark Was the Night is a somber album, but it is a compelling experience.
A great thing about the songs is that they manage to stand out, not only with the compilation but also compared to the artists' other songs. The Decemberists' "Sleepless" is more concise and focused than anything on the Hazards of Love. Indie troubadour Sufjan Stevens, obviously procrastinating on his 50 States Project, makes a brilliantly weird and epic cover of the Castanets' "You are the Blood." My Morning Jacket's "El Caporal" is a jolly jam that makes up for last year's grossly overrated album Evil Urges. Arcade Fire's "Lenin" is the best track here, sounding like something out of their excellent album Funeral. It's a quirky anthem with relevant, Neon Bible-esque lyrics. It starts off as rather nonsensical, until it hits the chorus, with Win Butler asking his daddy to "save the world" because "the money's all been spent."
If each artist on this album had the mind set of "I gotta do this to look good" or "It's just for a good cause," then Dark Was the Night would be like other compilations, filled with awkward moments and all lack of a unifying theme. Dark Was the Night could get confused for a normal album, because of the simple title and how the songs flow well together. Dark Was the Night is one of the best indie albums to come out this year. Not only is it for a good cause, but it also serves as a great sampler of the whole scene if you're totally unfamiliar with it all. Come for the cause; stay for the music.