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Published: 2009/03/10
by Randy Ray

Dark Was the Night: A Red Hot Compilation – various artists

4AD

Compilation albums featuring various artists by their very nature can be turgid affairs riddled with songs from an artist’s garbage heap, and delivered as a token gesture. However, the Red Hot Organization’s 20th compilation, helping to raise funds and awareness about HIV and AIDS, is an exception to that rule. Dark Was the Night is filled with artists who are seasoned innovative veterans, many performing dynamic solo and duet set pieces, as well as new beacons of light in a sometimes modern musical wasteland. The 32-track double album delivers a sonically somber yet emotionally-fulfilling banquet of riches, often acoustic, often weird, often passionate, and always arresting in its overall audio arc.

My Morning Jacket, Yo La Tengo, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Cat Power, Grizzly Bears, the Decemberists, and David Byrne. No, that isn’t a super heady summer festival bill, but they are a few of the artists represented here as one is taken on a trip through both shuffle-play heaven and thematically-true terrain on gangly pop (Byrne & Dirty Projectors’ collaborative “Knotty Pines”), an eight-minute mini opus (Decemberists’ “Sleepless”), nautical nightscapes (Grizzly Bear's “Deep Blue Sea”), sublime serenity (Cat Power's “Amazing Grace”), Midwestern meditation (Ivers’ “Brackett, WI”), a multi-sectioned cornucopia of grand and strange (Stevens’ epic nine-minute bit of gold “You Are the Blood”), a lovely frozen moment of peaceful bliss (YLT’s cover of Snapper's “Gentle Hour”), and a wacky waltz with Jim James and company, drifting, floating, and tip-toeing through the emotional wreckage (My Morning Jacket's “El Caporal”). One could continue, but the overall effect from all of the artists on this compilation is of deep longing for someone/anything just outside of one’s reach. The destination ain’t always what it seemed before one initially set out on the road, but damned if the listener isn’t going to have fun on the journey, nonetheless.

And while all of this can appear like an epic bout with musical melancholia, Dark Was the Night also glides along like a sublime adventure through a post-apocalyptic ambient forest where, for once, the best artists of one’s time have a brief moment to enhance the shadows of their creativity. Consequently, the work helps out an organization that has consistently provided artistic and financials answers to a critical worldwide problem that impacts millions of lives, not only in established countries and their polar opposite, Third World nations, but our own metropolitan and suburban zip codes. Those battles are the ones worth fighting for, and—for the most part—this compilation does a very fine job of engaging the listener with this well-considered sampling of stellar cuts from artists that are, also, often found on some of the more interesting fringes of contemporary music.

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