Various Artists
Dark Was The Night

4 out of 5 stars

Charity compilation albums just aren’t what they used to be — and thankfully so. Gone are the over-the-top “We Are The World” sing-a-longs with celebrities-turned-philanthropists, phony promo videos and all that jazz. Charity albums of late have been strikingly relevant, from the annual Bridge School and War Child compilations to last month’s Dark Was The Night, which tops them all.

Released as the 20th compilation benefiting the Red Hot Organization, an international charity battling HIV/AIDS, Dark Was The Night features some of the most engaging and creative voices in contemporary music. These artists lend their efforts and skills to help a noble cause — and Bono is nowhere to be found. With production left to the deft hands of Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National, Dark Was The Night features a who’s who of folk-leaning indie acts compiled on one startlingly fluid album.

Aided by a daily song leak on the album’s MySpace page, the hype for Dark started early and grew into a huge buzz. Separated between two discs — aptly named “THIS DISC” and “THAT DISC” — the compilation includes a total of 31 tracks (with one extra for iTunes shoppers, who are treated with Beach House’s take on Queen’s “Play the Game”). Other notable covers include Jose Gonzalez and the Books’ take on Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) and Bryce Dessner’s take on Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home” and Sufjan Stevens’s experimental pop rendering of Castanets’s “You Are the Blood.”

But what makes Dark Was The Night stand out from other compilations — aside from its vast amount of indie star power — is how amazingly well each collaboration between artists came together. “Train Song,” an intimate duet between Feist and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, is rivaled only by Conor Oberst’s reinterpretation of his own “Lua” with the help of strong and smoky tenor of Gillian Welch. Feist reappears later with Brooklyn heroes Grizzly Bear on the late-night bedroom hush of “Service Bell.”

A few songs on the album dip into the more obscure catalogs of its artists, such as Spoon’s “Well-Alright” and Arcade Fire’s live favorite “Lenin,” but several tracks are either newly written or newly collaborated on. Many of these were specially recorded for Dark, including The National’s “So Far Around the Bend,” Yeasayer’s yelp-some “Tightrope” and Grizzly Bear’s rousing full-band version of their own “Deep Blue Sea.”

While charity albums of the past relied on traditional covers, a hit single or mediocre songs thrown together at the last minute, this compilation shows considerable care and precision. It presents an exceptionally well-crafted and winning interpretation of modern, guitar-driven indie rock. With nearly every track worthy of considerable praise, there is seldom a weak moment on either disc. Sporting such an arresting and eclectic mix of artists, Dark Was The Night is assuredly just as safe on a Starbucks music rack as in a trendy Manhattan apartment.

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