Various Artists - Dark Was The Night

Bryce and Aaron Dessner have succeeded in curating probably the best mixtape you'll ever hear; just as the medium seemed to be in its dying throes, the pair have revived it

Album Review by Gillian Watson | 13 Feb 2009
  • Dark Was the Night
Album title: Dark Was The Night
Artist: Various Artists
Label: 4AD
Release date: 17 Feb

Over the past two decades, the Red Hot Organisation has been releasing star-studded compilations with the admirable aim of raising money and awareness for HIV and AIDS, reaching a peak in 1993 with the era-defining No Alternative, featuring a hidden track delivered by little-known grunge act Nirvana.

You might think, then, that 2009 curators Bryce and Aaron Dessner of indie rockers The National would have difficulty coming up with something to fittingly mark the 20th anniversary of this noble enterprise. Yet for Dark Was The Night's two discs they've managed to pull together a line-up that looks like a contemporary indie fan's wet dream: year-end list darlings (Bon Iver, Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio) rub shoulders with alternative stalwarts (Spoon, Yo La Tengo) and cult solo performers (Cat Power, Conor Oberst).

The Dessners have all bases covered for a record that has the potential to become as iconic as No Alternative proved to be. There's a link to the series' origins as David Byrne, instrumental in the creation of the first Red Hot compilation, joins New York's Dirty Projectors (aka experimental musician Dave Longstreth) on Knotty Pine, the album's opening track. Byrne's contribution is symbolically rather than musically memorable (you have to be wearing really good headphones to hear the ex-Talking Heads frontman's backing vocals), but the quality of the track, a pastoral beauty, renders Byrne's contribution almost irrelevant.

The fact is, there's enough good stuff here from new artists to be getting on with: proof that there's a wealth of talent to be tapped into for the purposes of the compilation. What's most remarkable about Dark Was The Night is its uniformity of quality - there are no duds, no tossed-off sub-B-side quality tracks. Moreover, there's a real sonic coherence to both discs which is surprising given the variation in styles, from the elastic jerk-pop of Spoon's Well Alright to Yo La Tengo's ambient, echoing cover of Snapper's Gentle Hours via Stuart Murdoch's delicate reworking of Wild Mountain Thyme into the plaintive Another Saturday. This is perhaps fostered by the collaborative spirit of the project: Sufjan Stevens appears by himself on This Disc (Disc One), only to pop up again on That Disc (Disc Two) helping Buck 65 out on his contribution, a 'remix' of Castanets' Blood Pt. 2.

Threads of melancholy and hope in the face of despair run through Dark Was The Night, making the record painfully moving, and thus almost difficult to listen to in full. This is the only flaw - if you could call it that - of the compilation. Bryce and Aaron Dessner have succeeded in curating probably the best mixtape you'll ever hear; just as the medium seemed to be in its dying throes, the pair have revived it. And what's more, it's all in the name of an excellent cause which has perhaps more resonance today than ever before.

So do yourself a favour and pick up an album that, if it can't exactly capture the sound of generation whose tastes are unspeakably diffuse, gives it a damn good shot anyway, going some way towards providing a snapshot of this particular moment in alternative rock history. An easy equal to the best moments in Red Hot's back catalogue.