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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2009 – Part 4 (Dark Was the Night – John Doe and the Sadies)

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Various Artists – Dark Was the Night:  A Red Hot Compilation
Charity compilation albums seldom yield much of longstanding worth.  They can be well-meaning, a boon (or burden) to completists, and fun, but it’s quite unusual that any offer an artist’s best work, usually relying on b-sides, leftovers, poorly conceived covers, and live versions of previously released material.  Red Hot’s No Alternative was something of an oddity in the early 90s, offering what seemed to be otherwise unavailable essential tracks at the time, like Bob Mould’s “Can’t Fight It,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “Glynis,” Pavement’s “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence,” and, perhaps most of all (to some folks, at least), Nirvana’s “Verse Chorus Verse.”  In retrospect, it’s a bit more of a mix – it still has those throwaway live versions (delivered by the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, and the Breeders), quirky covers (Soul Asylum does Marvin Gaye, Goo Goo Dolls do the Stones, Uncle Tupelo does CCR – okay, that last one’s pretty essential), and b-side level stuff (hi, Soundgarden).Anyway, that’s my lead-in – here’s the real content.  Dark Was the Night, curated by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, is Red Hot’s unofficial sequel to No Alternative, and, like No Alternative seemed at the time, it sounds far better than other such compilations.  The Dessner’s clearly took care to assemble some of the best and brightest indie types, and most seem to have responded with distinctly non-throwaway performances – at least on the first disc of this compilation.  In fact, the lively Dirty Projectors/David Byrne collaboration “Knotty Pine,” the National’s “Around the Bend” (which strategically references Pavement just as Pavement references R.E.M. on No Alternative), and Sufjan Stevens’ cover of the Castanets’ “You Are the Blood” stand with the best of each artist’s work.  It’s hard to predict how any of these songs will age, but even the covers sound inspired – The Books and Jose Gonzalez doing Nick Drake, Antony and Bryce Dessner doing Dylan, The New Pornographers doing one of bandmate Dan Bejar’s old Destroyer songs, and, perhaps most unexpectedly, the Kronos Quartet doing all kinds of string bending to pull off Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.”

But all of the aforementioned goodness (except the New Pornographers track) are on Disc One, which I recommend with no reservations.  Disc Two, though…  it’s a bit heavier on those outtakes.  “Lenin” is one of the slightest Arcade Fire songs to date, Spoon phones it in on “Well Alright,” and Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch fall back on one of Oberst’s tried’n’true Bright Eyes songs.  In fact, the only essential tracks on the second disc are the New Pornographers tune, My Morning Jacket’s horn-filled “El Caporal,” and Andrew Bird’s “The Giant of Illinois”; plus, it’s tonally all-over-the-place with Sharon Jones sounding like nothing else, Riceboy Sleeps putting things to a stop with a sleepy instrumental, and Buck 65 doing an unnecessary remix of Sufjan Stevens’ song from the first disc.  Caveat – you’re hearing this from a guy who doesn’t care all that much for Blonde Redhead, Beirut, or Cat Power; thinks Kevin Drew hasn’t put anything out since the self-titled Broken Social Scene album; and thinks Dave Sitek would be wise to let the other guys in TV on the Radio do the vocals.

But you’ve got to hear that first disc.

Death Cab for Cutie – The Open Door EP
Death Cab has a long record of solid EP releases that offer more than album throwaways, and The Open Door is yet another.  There’s nothing you wouldn’t expect from this band, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  They’re still sporting the glossier poduction they’ve sported since signing to a major and retain the beefier, rock-ier sound developed on Narrow Stairs (a welcome innovation after 2005’s Plans, their most tepid album this decade).  Ben Gibbard’s lyrical preoccupations remain much the same – confessions from commitment-phobes predominate (Zooey Deschanel beware), with “A Diamond and a Tether,” “My Mirror Speaks,” and “I Was Once a Loyal Lover” all variations on the theme.  To round it out, there’s another diss of an entire city (although Gibbard, now an Angeleno, now shifts his ire from L.A. to Vegas) and a Narrow Stairs demo.  All in all, a sturdy release that capably escapes EP redundancy by virtue of Gibbard’s sharp lyrics and the band’s evolving mastery of dynamics.

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
For all of the people Colin Meloy turns off by virtue of his voice, verbosity, and tendency toward the meek and folky, The Hazards of Love might have functioned as a fine response.  After all, he has esteemed company in the singing department this time around, his lyrics are pared down somewhat to make way for an album-length narrative, and if the music were just folky before (and it wasn’t – at least not if you were paying any sort of attention), here it’s an electric guitar-heavy prog-folk mix, like a showier, riff-heavy early 70s Fairport Convention.  But if the naysayers continued to say nay, Hazards won over some folks previously unaware of the band who seemed to admire it for its geeky scope and didn’t exactly turn off existing fans.

Still, as one of those existing fans, I can’t help feel a little let down by Hazards.  It’s more impressive than it is listenable, especially on a song-by-song basis.  This is meant to be a single piece and, perhaps fittingly, most of the tracks just don’t work that well out of context.  But as a single piece, it has some problems, as well.  The story has peaks and valleys, but it doesn’t have an entirely satisfying structure – the characters pop in and out, but seldom have much to do other than state their positions.  And the overall flow doesn’t quite work, possibly due to a “casting” coup, of all things.  Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) voices the Forest Queen in Meloy’s folk tale and basically steals the show in the few appearances she makes (Lavendar Diamond’s Becky Stark also guests as heroine Margaret, but Worden’s the real get here).  You want to hear more of her, but the story doesn’t support it.  Instead, we’re left with some good, but not remarkable and certainly a little repetitive, Decemberists songs to fill things out.

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
In most years, Bitte Orca might be a contender for my favorite album.  This year, there’s no contest.

There’s nothing in their previous work to suggest that Dirty Projectors would be taking part with Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear in the unified indie move toward accessibility.  Sure, some of us found a lot to like in their last album, Rise Above (a total bugfuck reimagining of Black Flag’s Damaged), but who would have thought to apply those jarring tempo changes, tweaked guitars, and perfectly synchronized wobbly vocals to pop music?

Dave Longstreth’s first genius move, it seems, was finally broadening his definition of Dirty Projectors from a solo project with a backing band to an outright band project.  Those disembodied background vocals from Rise Above are now crucial, with Angel Deradoorian (who joined after Rise Above, but that’s splitting hairs) and Amber Coffman almost stealing the show on their respective star turns, the plaintive “Two Doves” and “Stillness is the Move,” an R&B-diva-meets-avant-rock song that’s so undeniably chart-ready that Solange Knowles’ cover of it barely had to shave off the rough edges (for further proof that Coffman’s voice was, until recently, the Dirty Projectors’ secret weapon, see her amazing verse from “Knotty Pine” on Dark Was the Night).

Longstreth is still the frontman here, though, and he proves his vocal worth on gorgeous opener “Cannibal Resource,” “The Bride,” and “Useful Chamber,” among others.  Overall, though, Longstreth’s and his bandmates’ worth can’t really be measured strictly on vocal terms.  This is difficult music that manages to balance mess with finesse, and it’s a wonder they can all keep up with the guy’s muse.  And keep up they do – by the end of the year, the band had debuted another new vocally-boggling song, “When the World Comes to an End” on Jimmy Fallon, and they managed to impress no less an authority on holding a song together than ?uestlove.  Tellingly, the Roots and Dirty Projectors played a show together not long afterward.

John Doe and the Sadies – Country Club
Eh.  I love John Doe’s voice and his songwriting (particularly with X, but also otherwise), and tend to like the Sadies as a backing band.  This collection of country covers and original Doe songs that sound like country covers doesn’t really do much for me.


Written by Dave

December 23, 2009 at 6:20 pm

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