If ever a piece of music I have yet to wrap my head around, the charity compilation album has always been a bit of a hit-or-miss. Sure, buying these albums is always noteworthy; after all, it’s for a good cause. Sadly, however, these albums rarely ever rise to the occasion, often times coming across as a poorly run, crudely produced, B-side mixed album from cashed-in, radio-dominating artists. Well, leave it to two hailed alternative artists, Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, to put together one of the best charity albums in years. Collective ears, meet Dark Was the Night.
Being the Red Hot Organization’s twentieth anniversary, this AIDS fighting music organization went entirely all out on this two disc, thirty-one track album. Clocking in at two hours and ten minutes, Dark Was the Night manages to truly grab the listeners attention due to its veteran lineup of credited folk and indie artists, of which includes The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Feist, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear, and even Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes.
Starting the album off right with a Dirty Projectors cover of “Knotty Pine,” the album sets a high bar from the get go and rarely ever drops below. Whether it be the soulful drone of Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI,” the candle lit confessional of Feist and Ben Gibbard’s acoustic “Train Song,” or the playful accordion Beirut ballad “Mimizan,” Dark Was the Night rarely ever provides a dull moment.
While not entirely an accessible album, one can expect a wide spectrum of musical instruments and genres to collide within Dark Was the Night. Acoustic guitars greet an eerie choir of techno beats, horns, and a trembling piano in Sufjan Stevens' ten minute disc-one epic closer, "You Are the Blood." As if this plethora of musical excellence wasn't enough to exhaust even the most seasoned of music lovers, underground hip-hop artist Buck 65 provides a worthy, yet slightly condensed, cover of the Sufjan Stevens track, "Blood PT. 2."
Album highlight, and easily one of the best songs of 2009, showcases indie artist My Brightest Diamond and their coffee house, beatnik cover of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse tune “Feeling Good.” Starting off with a lone Shara Worden, this New York-native belts out a slow churning melody, carefully crooning a soothing silhouette of waltzing syllables before reaching a grand eruption of strings, brass, and woodwind. If you’re not nodding your head and snapping your fingers furiously by the end of the song, I believe it’s time you set up an appointment to get your ears checked.
For what it lacks in the "radio-friendly" department, Dark Was the Night more than makes up with its dream-team lineup of excellent alternative artists, superbly crafted songs, and it’s noteworthy cause, making it an album I can’t recommend enough.