Critical Voices: Dark Was The Night

February 12, 2009

4AD’s decision to greenlight Dark Was the Night, curated by the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner, must have been all too easy: great lineup, 32 exclusive tracks, and a great cause. (All proceeds from the album’s sales go toward fighting HIV/AIDS.) “What’s the catch?” you ask. Well, although the lineup is worth the price of admission—as is the cause, of course—these songs whiff of b-side fodder. Still, a few gems make this album a worthwhile purchase … because pirating it would be kind of cruel.

If you do decide to download a couple tracks to whet your appetite, there are a few that clearly stand out above the others. After a mediocre beginning, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, and the National collectively rescue the compilation. Grizzly Bear makes another appearance later, with Feist—one of many collaborations on the album—and their song “Service Bell” is probably the album’s finest moment. It’s got the expansive chamber harmonies of Grizzly Bear with the  nuances of Feist’s delicate lead vocals, all set to one of the better melodies Ed Droste and Co. have ever come up with.

On the compilation’s much weaker second disk, funk band Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings come through with an undeniable highlight. “Inspiration Information” is not a great song, but its muted, laid back production makes it a good one. Otherwise, a whole slew of huge names (Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst, Beirut, and Spoon, to name only a few) mostly fail to impress. Nothing is bad per se, but some of these feel like lesser versions of songs that already exist in each artist’s catalogue. But for many listeners, that will be enough to satisfy. Compilations with this many big names simply don’t come around often.

Also notable is Sufjan Stevens’s “You are the Blood,” a bizarre 10-minute opus far more sinister than anything he’s put out in years. It’s got a very horror B-movie feel to it, but even crazier, it reappears later with a rap remix by Buck 65. Stevens hasn’t put out an album in three years after pledging  that  he would make one for each state. Those of us who are counting know he’s got 48 more to go. Is he overwhelmed by the self-imposed project? From the sound of this, he’s already losing his mind.

Luckily, most of the artists here manage to keep it together, and if you dig these bands, you’ll be into Dark Was the Night.

Voice’s Choices: “Service Bell,” “You are the Blood,” “So Far Around the Bend”

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