VARIOUS ARTISTS – Dark Was The Night (2009)

Various Artists - Dark Was The Night As a rule, I tend to avoid purchasing music compilations, because more often than not, the compilations don’t offer anything that I haven’t already heard, or if they are offering new material, it tends to be, shall we say, uninspiring. I’m generalizing here, of course. There are exceptions. But Dark Was The Night (the first compilation from the Red Hot Organization in seven years) is so remarkably packed with deftly rendered reinterpretations, wonderful (and occasionally odd, but nonetheless successful collaborations – yes, I’m referring to you, Buck 65, Serengeti and Sufjan Stevens) and new material that it exceeds all the previously alluded to exceptions in recent memory.

Listening to Dark Was The Night is a bit of an unusual experience – with each song, you inevitably try to fit it into the oeuvre of the artist(s) who created it. So each song here, in its own way, is a revelation in one way or another. Sometimes, you’re simply reaffirming what you’ve known (Sufjan Stevens needs to make more music in the vein of Enjoy Your Rabbit). I maintain that the best song he’s ever written is from that album, the too beautiful for words Year of the Dragon, and here, his ten minute rendition of Castanets’ You Are The Blood is emotionally arresting; it’s a union between the haunted folk of the original version and a Wisp song. It’s holy paranoia incarnate. I never thought I’d be writing that to describe a Sufjan Stevens song, although it does actually fit better than you might think (you could apply the same phrase to the title track from Seven Swans, and it still works).

Of course sometimes, Dark Was The Night reveals something to you that you didn’t know. For example, consider the title track: originally written by Blind Willie Johnson, Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground, is a soulfully eerie song about the crucifixion of Christ. It walks the line between a blues dirge and solemn hymn, and here, it’s performed with surprising effectiveness by the Kronos Quartet. Never would I have guessed that they’d be able to tap into the raw spirit of the original as well as they do – even though their version is wordless, it still captures the unease and the sadness of the song by using a violin to emulate Blind Willie’s moans and wails.

I could go on. Dark Was The Night is two discs and 26 songs, and I’ve only barely touched on the myriad of treasures that it contains: Riceboy Sleeps’ Happiness is like a shimmering convergence of Eluvium and Amiina. Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch turn Lua into a warm duet. Ben Gibbard proves again that he’s better outside of Death Cab For Cutie with his cover of Train Song (performed with sometimes Broken Social Scene-stress Feist). And this is why I’m going to stop now. The last thing I’d want to do is impart so many of my musical thoughts that it’d ruin someone else’s own free-association process with it.

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2 Responses to “VARIOUS ARTISTS – Dark Was The Night (2009)”

  1. […] here, some later-era Talking Heads there (this makes sense, considering the band’s recent Dark Was The Night collaboration with David Byrne) – but the majority of the album is the way it is because of […]

  2. […] ARTISTS – Stroke: Songs For Chris Knox (2010) Last year, around this time, Dark Was The Night came out – it was a massive collection of indie material, organized and produced by Aaron and […]

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