Cementing their 20th anniversary of raising AIDS awareness, the Red Hot Organization enlisted the help of The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner to curate and craft their 20th compilation, Dark Was the Night. Named after the Blind Willie Johnson song and featuring an all-star cast of some of the best and finest musicians currently making music, this is a STACKED affair.
Everything from covers to originals is featured on here and it’s hard deciding on a place to start because this is all high-quality music. There are folk touches abound and they all sound affectingly personal. Bryce Dessner lends his acoustic guitar to Antony as he sings Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home” in his own, unique style. The next song finds Aaron Dessner teaming up with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to deliver Vernon’s fantastic, “Big Red Machine.” Back to back, they feature two of music world’s supreme voices in superb fashion.
This set can be found on either two-disc CD set or three-LP record format. Lucky enough to own the vinyl version, I prefer that sequencing where everything is neatly fitted onto six sides of brilliant music. But the CD version is comparable in how cohesive everything is layered; and the folk doesn’t stop with The Decemberists’ eight-minute, “Sleepless,” which may or may not be a bit self-indulgent. And both versions begin with David Byrne (an important supporter of the Red Hot Organization) and Dirty Projectors’ “Knotty Pine,” a song that is so equally melodic and joyful that it feels like the two have been making music for years and years now.
The charity organization has done a commendable job towards a great cause, through the help of pop culture. This particular collection of music is no different in that they enlist the help of musical giants, varied and similar, to deliver a strong effort. The Dessners certainly did their fair share as it was something they had been working on for the past three years and they flex their phonebook with the help of outstanding artists and bands.
Grizzly Bear appear twice with impressive contributions. Once with Leslie Feist on the spectral, eerie and emotive, “Service Bell.” Feist shares her gorgeous voice but the music is all Grizzly Bear’s with those timely and atmospheric touches. Daniel Rossen also performs his quiet “Deep Blue Sea” which can also be found on the Friend EP. And Samuel Beam shows up for the too short, “Stolen Houses (Die).”
But there are also some ingenious covers that sound as if they are the artists’ own music. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings cover of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information” is a terrific rendition and one of the album’s highlights. Jones’ voice is sublime and those horns are precise, jazzy and absolutely spectacular. Speaking of jazz, there is also My Brightest Diamond’s performance of “Feeling Good” which, succinctly, blows that Michael Bublé one right out of the water. There is also The Books and José González’ electronic take on Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” Andrew Bird’s rousing version of The Handsome Family’s “The Giant of Illinois”—with enough violins and strings to wake your soul—the Kronos Quartet’s instrumental of the title track and Cat Power’s affecting performance of the traditional song, “Amazing Grace.”
But the best cover, easily, goes to the one by Sufjan Stevens. Spanning over ten minutes long, Stevens magically transforms The Castanets’ “You are the Blood” into a synthetic, piano-drenched, horn-infused, beast of a song. Stevens showcases his composition skills and pours his heart and soul into the song. Later on, or right after if you own the vinyl version, Buck 65 covers that version with Serengeti. They borrow the same idea and keep it sincere but as the album’s only true rapping, it’s magnificent.
The truth is, practically everything on Dark Was the Night is exceptionally well done. Even when they aren’t covering but contributing original recordings, everyone brings their A-game. The National expertly gift the string-laden, “So Far Around the Bend,” Spoon arrive with a flashy new song, “Well-Alright,” which is followed by Arcade Fire’s shuffling, “Lenin,” and My Morning Jacket’s swooning, laid-back, “El Caporal,” which are all skillful offerings from indie-rock’s heavyweights.
Although the music is definitely a joy to hear, one mustn’t forget what it was made for. By the time you get to Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch’s duet of Bright Eyes’ “Lua,” the somber feelings hit home. And while The Red Hot Organization has done their share in raising awareness for a horrible disease with an amazing collection of songs, everyone else has to go out and buy this album. It’s such a worthy and honorable cause and with music as good as this, you have nothing to lose.