On the occasion of its 20th year, the Red Hot Organization, an AIDS fundraising and awareness group, has released Dark Was the Night, a two-disc (or a three-disc vinyl) compilation with a "who's-who" of indie rock of the past decade. Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National worked with Red Hot founder John Carlin to compile 32 songs of unreleased covers and originals from artists including Cat Power, Grizzly Bear, Antony Hegarty, Sufjan Stevens, Gillian Welch, My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists and Yo La Tengo, to name a few.
The Kronos Quartet faithfully (and oddly) execute a scratchy version of Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night," the compilation's title track, which acts as metaphor to a painful, tragic history of an epidemic exploding, impacting many communities. The tune and the album serve as well as a tribute to all of the epidemic's ghosts -- that is the overall tone of Dark Was the Night, one filled with ghosts.
Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons), accompanied with Bryce Dessner on acoustic guitar and string arrangements by composer Nico Muhly, contributes a stunning and vulnerable version of "I Was Young When I Left Home," a Dylan song covered by many, including recent renditions by Lila Nelson and Jenny Scheinman. Hegarty embodies the song with his vocals, which honor the original and mark an original emotional distinction. And along similar lines, The Books turn in an engaging take of Nick Drake's "Cello Song" with Jose Gonazlez on vocals that sound both familiar and different.
Other highlights include Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings' Stax-like take of Shuggie Otis' "Inspiration Information," Feist and Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard's haunting version of Vashti Bunyan's "Train Song," Arcade Fire's stripped-down new offering, "Lenin," My Brightest Diamond's sultry, Nina Simone-inspired version of Anthony Newley's "Feeling Good," and new hooked-filled, upbeat originals from The National ("So Far Around the Bend") and the collaboration of Dirty Projects with David Byrne ("Knotty Pine") are all top-notch.
And though this compilation contains an enormous amount of quality material, it, too, has its flaws. For example, even though Sufjan Stevens pulled off an audacious version of Dylan's "Ring Them Bells," for the I'm Not There soundtrack, his 10-minute plus over-the-top reworking of The Castanets' "You Are the Blood" is merely indulgent. Also Justin Vernon's two contributions (one under his nom de plume, Bon Iver, and one, with Aaron Dessner, under his own name) feel like further outtakes from his recent sessions (previously and adequately released on his EP Blood Bank), without adding anything new to his oeuvre.
But these shortcomings are few and far between. Dark Was the Night is chock-full of excellent offerings of diverse interpretations of loss, of contemporary music founded on Americana folk, of bridging past and present in song, metaphor and cause.