For 20 years, the Red Hot organization has been raising money for HIV and AIDS awareness, and in that amount of time, the organization has also released 20 compilations in different genres and niches, celebrating different types of music while raising money for a good cause. While Red Hot + Blue celebrated the music of Cole Porter, and Red Hot + Riot! found contemporary artists recording the music of Fela Kuti, 1994’s No Alternative showcased alternative and indie rock’s brightest stars at the time, including Pavement, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and The Beastie Boys. For the organization’s 20th compilation release, producers Bryce and Aaron Dessner (of the National) compiled two discs worth of material from basically every indie rock act worth a damn right now, with inspiration taken from American roots music, the name of the album itself coming from the title of a Blind Willie Johnson tune.
An undercurrent of blues, gospel, folk and country inspirations runs through the course of the album, though few of these songs could necessarily be classified by any of these names. Instead, what you’ll find on this album are 31 heartfelt, soulful and awe-inspiring songs, none of which had been previously released, and many of them featuring collaborative efforts that bring out the best of each artist. The Dirty Projectors and David Byrne kick off the album with a celebratory and vibrant track titled “Knotty Pine,” one that wouldn’t be hard to imagine either artist doing on their own (but together sounds even better, of course). Feist and Ben Gibbard’s reading of Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song” is soft and seductive, while The Books’ cover of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” with Jose Gonzalez’s vocals, is a magnificent electronic-flavored update of the original. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon appears twice, once with Bon Iver on the gorgeous “Brackett, WI,” and once again on the even more powerful “Big Red Machine” with Aaron Dessner. Dessner’s brother Bryce likewise collaborates with Antony Hegarty on the soft and somber cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home.”
Grizzly Bear is another artist that appears twice on Dark Was the Night, first with the gospel inflected “Deep Blue Sea,” and later on with Feist, another recurring artist, on the elegant and melancholy “Service Bell,” easily one of the most stunning tracks here (and that’s saying a lot given just how many great songs there are). Iron & Wine’s “Stolen Houses (Die)” breezes by quickly at just longer than a minute, yet still sounds gorgeous as always, while Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” layers percussion and handclaps over an otherwise sparse African-inspired track. My Brightest Diamond, a.k.a. Shara Worden, has been compared to Nina Simone, so it makes perfect sense that she take on “Feeling Good,” which Simone made famous. Worden’s version is nonetheless gorgeous and haunting, with a sultry horn section and melancholy strings. In a similar vein, Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues fire up the reverb and Hammond organ for a soulful version of “Amazing Grace” that almost makes you wonder if the song were custom made for Chan Marshall.
Spoon’s “Well-Alright” has the raw feel of a demo (and very well could be, considering the drum machine beats), but any Spoon is good Spoon, this being no exception. Arcade Fire’s “Lenin” rocks with an old-school bluesy rock `n’ roll sound, while Sufjan Stevens reconfigures “You Are the Blood,” originally performed by labelmate Castanets. Stevens retains the original’s dark atmosphere and creepy ambience, yet his version incorporates more glitch electronics and an overall cinematic vibe. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who are always good for an old school soul-funk session, do their own incredible version of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information.” TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek also provides a cover of The Troggs’ “With a Girl Like You,” though its murky, dreamy, soulful shoegazer sound is enough to convince you that the whole band is in on it. The ornate plucks of Andrew Bird’s “The Giant of Illinois” make it a gorgeous standout, and a wonderful addition to Bird’s already stellar body of work. And The National, the band from whom the comp’s curators hail, contributes a beautiful track in “So Far Around the Band,” breezy in its pace yet soaring with its arrangement from modern composer Nico Muhly.
You’ve probably noticed at this point that I haven’t mentioned any weak spots. Dark Was the Night doesn’t really have any, so to speak. It’s rare that a compilation can come around with so much “A” material on it, yet the Red Hot organization has struck gold once again. The list of artists should have been enough to convince anyone that this album is worth a listen, but the individual contributions should be enough to convince anyone to listen to it over and over again, whether in small chunks or in its entirety. That Dark Was the Night also benefits a great cause just gives even more of a reason why this collection is worth your cash.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.