Various Artists: 4AD Dark Was the Night

[4AD; 2009]

Styles: 4AD flashbacks, atmospheric indie arrangements, reimagined field recordings
Others: {No Alternative, Red Hot + Bothered}, War Child comps, {USA for Africa}

Oh, the benefit compilation. In the ’90s, it was a safe bet that any alterna-kid worth his or her weight had a copy of No Alternative filed right next to Nirvana and the Sweet Relief collection wedged right after Soul Asylum. Those compilations made a lot more sense then: Want that rare track from a favorite band of yours? Buy the record, help the cause! In today's BitTorrent, pick and choose, who-pays-for-music-anymore world, it's harder to see how this works. But if anybody can take the benefit compilation concept from doomed anachronism to successful fundraising device, it's the people at the Red Hot Organization.

It has been a few years since the folks at Red Hot -- the leading international organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture -- have put together a compilation, let alone one that appeals to the indie rock set. The aforementioned No Alternative came out back in 1993, and the fantastic Red Hot + Bothered: An Indie Rock Guide to Dating was unleashed in 1995. But this year, they've teamed up with 4AD and Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National to release the much-anticipated, highly-blogged about Dark Was the Night, a two-disc (or triple vinyl) compilation of epic indie proportions.

If you consider yourself an indie rock connoisseur, then at least three -- perhaps all? -- of your favorite bands are on here. It's like fantasy football for music geeks: The Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Feist, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver, Yo La Tengo, New Pornographers, Spoon, Cat Power. It even has some truly unique collaborations, such as David Byrne and Dirty Projectors, The Books and Jose Gonzalez, and Ben Gibbard and Feist.

While recording a track for a comp was much more complicated in the past, today's musical landscape has changed significantly since the ’90s; recording is easier and cheaper than ever, and bands are often doing what they want, not what some record company executives tell them they should do. So, what we have with Dark Was the Night is an exceptional collection of well-chosen songs by artists who have the freedom and ability to do exactly what they want. That seems to be the underlying beauty to the entire two-disc set. Sure, some tracks will grab you more immediately than others (Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” is spirit-lifting and powerful, and Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI” is better than most of his new EP, while The Decemberists’ “Sleepless” may push the patience of even their most ardent fans), but the overall feeling is "Here's our contribution to a cause we really care about. Here's a recording that means a lot to us."

You can read through countless blog postings if you want breakdowns of individual tracks, but the real point is that, as a compilation, Dark Was the Night far and away surpasses its predecessors -- even in an age when it should be irrelevant. Go buy it.

This Disc:
1 Dirty Projectors and David Byrne - "Knotty Pine"
2 The Books [ft. Jose Gonzalez] - "Cello Song"
3 Feist and Ben Gibbard - "Train Song"
4 Bon Iver - "Brackett, WI"
5 Grizzly Bear - "Deep Blue Sea"
6 The National - "So Far Around the Ben
7 Yeasayer - "Tightrope"
8 My Brightest Diamond - "Feeling Good"
9 Kronos Quartet - "Dark Was the Night"
10 Antony and Bryce Dessner - "I Was Young When I Left Home"
11 Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner - "Big Red Machine"
12 The Decemberists - "Sleepless"
13 Iron and Wine - "Stolen Houses (Die)"
14 Grizzly Bear and Feist - "Service Bell"
15 Sufjan Stevens - "You Are the Blood"

That Disc:
1 Spoon - "Well-Alright"
2 Arcade Fire - "Lenin"
3 Beirut - "Mimizan"
4 My Morning Jacket - "El Caporal"
5 Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings - "Inspiration Information"
6 Dave Sitek - "With a Girl Like You"
7 Buck 65 [ft. Sufjan Stevens and Serengeti] - "Blood Pt 2"
8 The New Pornographers - "Hey, Snow White"
9 Yo La Tengo - "Gentle Hour”
10 Stuart Murdoch - "Another Saturday"
11 Riceboy Sleeps - "Happiness"
12 Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues - "Amazing Grace"
13 Andrew Bird - "The Giant of Illinois"
14 Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch - "Lua"
15 Blonde Redhead and Devestations - "When the Road Runs Out"
16 Kevin Drew - "Love vs. Porn"

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