Saturday, March 14, 2009

Beams of light in the darkness

When I stopped by Sonic Boom in Capitol Hill last week to pick up some empty CD cases for future mixes, I stumbled upon Dark Was The Night, the recently released benefit album from the Red Hot Organization, which has put out a number of compilations over the years to raise money for HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness efforts. The price (between $12 and $13, I think) was extremely low considering the total number of tracks (31!), and though I tend to be at least as wary of benefit albums as the average person, I went for it. After all, the lineup of artists -- Bon Iver, The Books, Yeasayer, The National, Spoon, Grizzly Bear, Beirut, and even quirky Canadian hip-hop artist Buck 65 -- struck me as the kind of zeitgeist-ish assembly you rarely find on mixes like this. Usually, a benefit album's roster is clearly intended to be hip but falls well short of the mark; this one seemed right on the money.

It's no great surprise that the record is a mixed bag; what is surprising is who shines and who falls flat. Spoon's "Well Alright" is the sort of mildly frantic, forward-surging minimalist punky pop they haven't released in years. Their last full-length album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, was at once more experimental, heavily produced, and on target than previous strong but hit-and-miss efforts. The band's Dark track is peppy but forgettable, and its resemblance to their more low-fi earlier work suggests to me that this is more of a second-tier B-side than anything else.

What's more interesting is when an artist uses the freedom of the compilation format to depart from his or her usual style. This is what Sufjan Stevens does on the epic "You Are the Blood," which starts with R2D2-like electronic squawks and drones, then gives way to Stevens' distinctively gentle vocals. The music that surrounds them is considerably more downbeat than his usual neo-Americana orchestrations, though the lyrics evoke Stevens' usual theme of Christian praise:
You are the blood flowing through my fingers/All through the soil and up in those trees/You are electricity and you're light/You are sound itself and you are flight
That the "You" Stevens is referring to is God seems hard to deny; there's even a little blood imagery to invoke the Son as well as the Father. Still, like much of the artist's other work (especially on his 2005 masterpiece, Illinois), this is music that defies easy categorization and has greater potential appeal than a strange, dirge-like worship song normally would.

Some established bands, like the Arcade Fire with "Lenin" and the New Pornographers with "Hey Snow White," contribute light-hearted, unmemorable throwaways that might interest fans but are unlikely to grab newcomers, since they don't demonstrate anything close to the bands' full power. Rising Brooklyn tribal-rock outfit Yeasayer has the right idea with "Tightrope," a tune that feels tossed off in the best possible sense. It seems mostly about the band enjoying itself, and on albums like this, that's often a formula for success. "Service Bell," a brief, delicate duet between Canadian acts Feist and Grizzly Bear, is another winner that easily ranks with either band's best work, and "Brackett, W9" highlights Bon Iver's inspired, low-fi production and ethereal vocals to fine effect.

Dark's covers, on the other hand, are pretty uninspired. Conceptually, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' neo-soul sensibility is a great match for Shuggie Otis' smartly soulful "Inspiration Information," yet their take is more of a down-the-line single than a home run. My Brightest Diamond's version of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" adds nothing and is completely unnecessary, and even Antony's rendition of a Dylan song, "I Was Young When I Left Home," isn't more than the sum of its parts. (In contrast, Antony's contribution to the I'm Not There soundtrack, "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," adjusted the song's tone from world-weary to mournful, thus serving as a true interpretation rather than a straight rendition.)

For me, a compilation track works best if it finds the artist going someplace new without sacrificing album-worthy quality. According to those criteria, Buck 65's "Blood Pt. 2," which samples the aforementioned Stevens track, is Dark's only runaway success. Buck's rhyming tangle of domestic details and drug innuendo ("cotton swabs and bloody lies") meshes beautifully with the horn-heavy production and the channeling of Stevens' haunting chorus. Unlike many of the double album's other tracks, "Blood Pt. 2," at a length of just over three and a half minutes, feels almost too short and definitely leaves you wanting more.

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