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Obviously, this conversion experience is unlikely to attract ordinary curiosity seekers--not even when I stipulate that now I connect to the album perfectly well when not bummed out, and that someday I hope to listen back and recall tranquilly a baleful moment in the history of the republic. Curated--for once that revolting term is justifiable--by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National, whose proudest previous achievement was an excoriating anthem of yuppie despair called "Fake Empire," Dark Was the Night scatters 37 artists across 33 tracks, nine of them collaborations.
For me, several of these artists are major--Yo La Tengo, Arcade Fire, Coner Oberst, maybe others.
Because the coherence that regularly eludes multiple-artist collections comes even harder when the fund-raiser is loath to turn down big names fobbing off outtakes, I shelved War Child Presents Heroes: An Album to Benefit Children Affected by War with one glance at the small type: "Recorded by Today's Biggest Artists" (yeah, sure) "Requested by the Original Legends" (who were busy). Red Hot has been the charity comp's class act since its 1990 inaugural, the Cole Porter-themed Red Hot Blue, in which arty stars of the Bush I era introduced the disaffected young to the most acerbic of the great pop songwriters, whose romantic irony held up to both warm tributes and wise-guy deconstructions--Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop's version of "Well Did You Evah" is as devil-may-care as Crosby and Sinatra's.
But Dark Was the Night, the latest from the AIDS-fighting Red Hot Organization, came with some buzz and a recognizable profile: indie-rock obscurities stand up on their hind legs and wave a flag. None of the dozen-plus subsequent Red Hot albums has matched that standard, but their general deftness and integrity rock--amid Gershwin and Ellington collections, the inevitable neodisco mix, and more Brazilian stuff than a non-Lusophone can sort out, I'm especially partial to the obscure Red Hot Bothered (a through-conceived indie mix that speaks softly where the better-known No Alternative brags), the Afrobeat-redefining Fela Kuti homage Red Hot Riot (some in Nigeria still deny that Fela died of AIDS), and the consciously hip-hop America Is Dying Slowly (note acronym and "All net proceeds will go towards fighting AIDS in communities of color" pledge).
Click here to view the Biggest Songs of 2017 so far.
What's impressive is how many in-betweens outdo themselves, how petty shortcomings are transformed into provisional virtues by the surrounding music or the aid and comfort of another equally limited artist.
The upshot is a portrait of a subculture that's greater than the sum of its members.
So I was dismayed when the passive-aggressive insularity of Dark Was the Night's first disc reinforced my direst fears about the indie-rock cenacles of the Bush II era.
Although the usual plaudits were amped up by countless indie sites, I wasn't the only dissenter.