AIDS has an interesting history. It was ignored by the Reagan administration until his final year in office, which was detailed in the exemplary book And the Band Played On; it was dramatized effectively in Philadelphia, less effectively in Rent and served as a major catalyst for prophetic vision in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which is – bet yer ass – the most important play of the last twenty years. Much has been made of raising awareness about AIDS, although our current Pope (quick anecdote – I have a good friend who is Catholic and her father, who is sadly no longer with us, knew about Pope Benedict back when he was merely Cardinal Ratzinger. His nickname for the guy was Cardinal Ratfucker) doesn’t seem to think condoms will help prevent it. Once again, Pope Benedict, Science and I would like to have a word with you.
Somewhere in here is the context in which we find the two-disc Red Hot compilation Dark Was the Night, produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner, two members of The National who used to work at Red Hot. Dark Was the Night exists to raise money for AIDS education and prevention and it’s pretty irresistible at 13 bucks. I ordered my copy from Red Hot and got 2 free 7 inch singles, which I can’t play because I lack a turntable at the moment. But I would like to thank Red Hot for starting my vinyl collection for me. In case the whole value-for-money thing is a big deal to you, I should like to repeat: I bought Dark Was the Night for 13 dollars. That’s 31 songs for 13 dollars. And most of the songs are pretty good, too. The comp starts off on a weird note with David Byrne and The Dirty Projectors mutilating a song called “Knotty Pine.” The Dirty Projectors have a female vocalist who is absolutely terrible. But that track is followed by a series of very pretty songs, starting with Jose Gonzalez (everyone’s favorite Swede) and The Books doing “Cello Song,” which is all soft and lovely and just like you’d expect from Mr. Gonzalez. Ben Gibbard (s0on to be Mr. Zooey Deschanel) and Feist take on “Train Song,” next, but it’s not the Tom Waits version of the song, which kind of disappointed me. For some reason, I expect one of these artists to cover Tom Waits. I don’t know why.
There’s really no way to talk about Dark Was the Night as anything other than it’s good bits and it’s bad bits. It starts off with a bad song, then goes on a run of several truly lovely tunes, climaxing with The National’s outstanding (as usual) “So Far Around the Bend,” which quips, “You’ve been hummin’ in a haze forever/ praying for Pavement to get back together.” I think we’ve all been doing that. Am I right? There are a few surprises on the album. For instance, I’ve not been a big Grizzly Bear fan, but their “Deep Blue Sea” is part of the afore-mentioned run of loveliness. Stuart Murdoch (of Belle & Sebastian, perhaps the most over-rated indie band ever) turns in a very pretty tune called “Another Saturday.” I’m not a big Antony & the Johnsons fan but Antony sings Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home” like Nina fucking Simone, which is to say he sings it in an unparalleled, hauntingly beautiful sort of way. If The Crying Light is like this (doubtful), I might just be persuaded to check it out. Yeasayer, a band I’ve never given a shit about, made me pretty happy with “Tightrope,” although it mostly makes me miss Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. I’ve never listened to My Brightest Diamond before, but “Feeling Good” is quite compelling. I think Beirut is kind of obnoxious, but didn’t mind “Mimizan” at all.
And, naturally, there are some unsurprising moments, like Sufjan Stevens still pissing me off with “You are the Blood” which is a ten minute bastard of a melodramatic, horn-infused, self-indulgent piece of shit. And then Buck 65 remixes it on Disc 2, making it shorter and still fuck-terrible. I mean, it’s awful. It’s not surprising to me that The National have the best song of the compilation in a landslide (My Morning Jacket comes in a close second with the swinging “El Caporal” – don’t believe the Pitchfork kids’ disses of MMJ; they’re a great band and Evil Urges is an awesome album) and it’s not surprising that my favorite songs on the album are by artists I already know and love.
Perhaps the biggest criticism I could lob at the compilation as a whole is that it represents a very soft side of indie music, which I don’t mind, but My Morning Jacket, Spoon, and Sharon Jones are the only artists who really get the pulse racing on Dark Was the Night. The album could benefit from some of indies louder acts, like maybe The Hold Steady or The Thermals or even The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Some more raucous stuff would be welcome on the comp, but I’m not gonna throw the thing out just because it lacks electric guitars.
Among the 31 tracks, the score is overwhelmingly toward the good – I would score it somewhere around 27 to 4 or 28 to 3, allowing for personal taste. But some of the good stuff is truly amazing, like “So Far Around the Bend” and the stunning Riceboy Sleeps (who the fuck is that? Turns out it involves the singer from Sigur Ros and his boyfriend. They have released two singles and a book) instrumental “Happiness.” In fact, the worst stuff on this album mostly involves Sufjan Stevens. And you can’t pay 13 bucks for 28 awesome songs anywhere but the Russian black market. When you can pay 13 bucks for music this uniformly excellent and have the money go to fight AIDS, I would like to think you need no more persuading.