When Aaron Dessner of the National was approached to compile a new compilation to benefit the Red Hot organization, he set out to assemble an album that would be representative of current day indie rock. The result is Dark Was the Night, a thoroughly great compilation that plays like a dream mixtape of rare cuts and covers by nearly every major band that was an indie fave in the last five years.
Dark Was the Night is essentially a sequel to the alt-rock-heavy Red Hot compilation titled No Alternative from the early ‘90s, and is split between one disc featuring more conventional, American-roots-based songs and covers, and a second disc heavy on latter influences.
The first disc (titled “This Disc”) is Dark’s strongest. It features an eight-track run at the beginning that is beyond reproach, and only has two missteps: the Kronos Quartet’s cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s original as the title track, which seems really out of place, and Sufjan Stevens’ way-too-long version of the Castanets’ “You Are the Blood." “This Disc” begins with Dirty Projectors’ bouncy “Knotty Pine,” which features backing vocals and lyrics from David Byrne, hits an early one-two highlight of Feist and Ben Gibbard’s wistful cover of Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song” and Bon Iver’s “Brackett, WI,” and features two great new tracks from bands that haven’t had new material released in a long stretch (Grizzly Bear’s “Deep Blue Sea” and Yeasayer’s “Tightrope”).
Aaron Dessner (and his brother Bryce) help on three tracks on the first disc. They appear together on the hazy “So Far Around the Bend” by the National (featuring strings from Nico Muhly), Bryce helps Antony cover Bob Dylan (“I Was Young When I Left Home,” from Dylan’s Love and Theft), and Aaron plays with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on “Big Red Machine.”
The second disc (titled “That Disc”) starts on a great six-track run, starting with new Spoon, the lo-fi “Well-Alright”; Arcade Fire, the blustery “Lenin”; Beirut, the Spanish-tinged “Mimizan”; and My Morning Jacket, the huge-as-ever “El Caporal.” It continues with covers by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, who do a faithful cut of Shuggie Otis’ “Inspiration Information," and TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, who lends his smoking-effected, husky croon to a layered cover of the Troggs’ “With a Girl Like You."
But compared to the first album, “That Disc” runs out of steam thanks to a so-so run of songs from Buck 65, who remixes the earlier Sufjan track with Serengeti, the New Pornographers, which does a competent cover of Destroyer’s “Hey, Snow White," Yo La Tengo, which does a resolutely mediocre cover of Snapper’s “Gentle Hour,” and Cat Power (whose “Amazing Grace” is definition of compilation-only).
But even the tracks that aren’t that great on Dark Was the Night have certain charms. There’s a certain history-capturing aspiration here, as if the album's purpose wasn’t just for charity, to move records, or for Dessner to get together with his pals to compile an album but to provide a musical time capsule that in 20 years could allow younger generations to get into indie rock from the early 21st century. (It would be the same way that No New York made it possible for this generation to get into no wave, for example). If that was how compilation albums were solely judged, Dark Was the Night would be the gold standard.