As a premise it takes some beating. Gather the most prominent members of the Brooklyn-centred US alt-rock royalty to donate 31 unreleased cuts for a double-CD compilation. Recruit Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National – possible the most consistently innovative outfit to emerge from America’s burgeoning alt. rock scene in recent years – to produce. Direct to proceedings to the Red Hot Organisation, a charity dedicated to combating HIV and AIDS renowned for using music to raise awareness and funds for their important cause. Add all these factors together and ‘Dark Was The Night’, the twentieth Red Hot-related compilation to mark the charity’s 20th anniversary, sounds like a landmark event.
The reality, however, is a bit more complicated. When ‘Dark Was the Night’ hits the mark, and it does so for a good 2/3 of the running order, the results are a mouth-watering feast of top-quality sounds from some of the finest artists currently in circulation. The National, predictably enough, provide one of the highlights with the gently rolling, string-soaked ‘So Far Around the Bend’. Yeasayer are also on top form, with ‘Tightrope’ boding well for the globe-rock troupe’s imminent second album. The Decemberists, Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors (in collaboration with David Byrne) also dazzle, whilst My Morning Jacket continue their beguiling trek away from their much-beloved cosmic Crazy Horse crunch with the lovely soft-rock of ‘El Caporal’. Add to this strong entries from such luminaries as the Arcade Fire (shaking off their stale stench of dour epics with the glam stomp of ‘Lenin’), Bon Iver, Yo La Tengo (the dark and brooding ‘Gentle Hour’), Beirut, Cat Power, Iron and Wine, Spoon and the New Pornographers, and the proceedings couldn’t get much sweeter.
Unfortunately, a sizable chunk of the running order is taken over by cover versions of wildly varying quality. Whilst Antony and Bryce Dessner stun with a graceful take on the traditional folk lament ‘I Was Young When I Left Home’, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings prove there’s life left yet in the retro-soul racket with a vibrant take on Shuggie Otis’s ‘Inspiration Information’ and the Kronos Quartet offer a suitably spooky rendition of the ancient Blind Willie Johnson blues that gives the comp its name, a few of the covers carry an unappetising whiff of hastily assembled single B-sides.
But only a fool would question to good intentions of all those involved, not to mention the remarkable strike rate of what has to be one of the – if not the – most remarkable cavalcade of talent ever assembled for a good cause. Had all participants been firing on all cylinders, ‘Dark Was The Night’ would’ve been an unstoppable juggernaut. As it is, it stands as a truly convincing reason - should one be required - to donate some of your hard-earned for a worthwhile cause.