Charity Cases

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The charity compilation album is a vexing form -- the cause good, the sponsor honorable, the music beset by contradictions. 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). 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. Two discs' worth. So I was eager to give it a shot.

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. 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). 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. Even Pitchfork sachem Scott Plagenhoef qualified his 86 by knocking the set's "monotone look at the current indie landscape," and at the dearly departed Blender, review editor Rob Tannenbaum passed: "I am a pop fan and a rock fan and these bands embody the pinnacle of a generation that is expressly uninterested in rock and pop. Or to put it less politely, could one of you just hire a fucking drummer?" Tannenbaum preferred the Heroes comp, and by then I knew why. War Child, which in 2008 alone offered material aid to 25,000 children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Uganda, and other military disaster zones, works out of the U.K., where the alt-pop divide is less stark. Five of its nine U.S. and Canada acts began as indie phenoms; so did most of the seven Brits, only they broke so fast the distinction became meaningless. Though whiter and less star-studded (also less accomplished), this lineup recalled Red Hot + Blue's Sinéad-Erasure-Nevilles model, while Dark Was the Night was exceedingly scant on SoundScan cynosures.

The point of this music-nerd hairsplitting is that pretty much by accident, these two pieces of musical do-gooding suggest contrasting futures for artistically ambitious pop, except that with Dark Was the Night pop has very little to do with it -- and not just because the drummers suck. What really dismayed me was how amelodic it was. Three, four plays into disc one -- I was trying -- all that stuck was Grizzly Bear's off-center rendition of the indelible old "Deep Blue Sea." In contrast, Heroes had its "Original Legends." Where Red Hot + Blue undertook to acclimate the rock and roll hordes to so-called "classic popular song," Heroes asked luminaries from Dylan to U2 to set up a dream date between a young artist and a favorite musical child. Thus it killed two clichés with one concept -- the neocon canard that we hordes have no classic popular songs of our own, and the faux-elitist truism that song form as we've known it has outlived its aesthetic usefulness.

Red Hot + Blue it ain't. The Leonard Cohen–Adam Cohen pass-along is egregious, the Like and the Kooks are too minor for this company, Elbow revving down U2 and Hot Chip revving down Joy Division are perilously pallid, and a few promising combos -- that goof Beck's album-opening take on Dylan's already goofy "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat," TV on the Radio muffling the ambiguously climactic David Bowie title song -- fail to jell. But early on, known Springsteen impressionist Craig Finn of the Hold Steady lays down a more chilling band version of "Atlantic City" than the Boss ever has, weary and ominous and precise. And then, five tracks in, Lily Allen transfigures the album. The Clash's "Straight to Hell" is an acknowledged classic. But the interweave of Mick Jones's guitar, Greg Kurstin's keybs, and Allen's sweet, thoughtful vocal takes Joe Strummer's lament for Vietnamese babies and other imperialist flotsam and jetsam into a caring place his pained slur didn't reach. I know I just raved about Allen's album, but here she's interpreting too. Three years ago, who would have thought this shrewdly unpretentious self-promoter might turn into a major singer?

After that comes a cavalcade of ace covers. Two are vaguely thematic: Estelle's enlightened "Superstition" and Duffy's weirdly touching critique-of-militarism-by-horrible-example via Paul McCartney's James Bond theme "Live and Let Die." But the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' bratty "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," Franz Ferdinand's arena-sized "Call Me," and Rufus Wainwright's lieder-loving miniaturization of Brian Wilson's Smile are equally to the future-of-pop point. And it's illustrated best of all by the Scissor Sisters' falsetto resuscitation of Roxy Music's "Do the Strand" and Peaches' consensual s&m with the Stooges' "Search and Destroy." Because both the gay-and-vain dance act, whom I wish the best, and the hermaphrodite-envying electroporn queen, who I wish would go away, get over on image and in-jokes, it's instructive to see how they're enlarged by other people's great songs in someone else's great context.

None of Heroes' contributors would enjoy their marginal pop recognition if they didn't appreciate a good tune. On the singles chart, good tunes remain a sales essential, and they haven't lost their aesthetic frisson. Because they're expected to write their own material, rock artists too often return to the same well melodically. Performing more covers would get them out of this box and help grow a canon long stunted by the curtailed tune exposure of the current system. Not that I expect any such consummation to occur -- not with covers avoided for reasons of royalty maximization as well as artistic integrity. But Heroes honors the untapped variety of a musical tradition now more than half a century old -- the tradition Tannenbaum observes the Dark Was the Night "generation" has no evident interest in.

Only to my surprise, this may be a good thing. Dark Was the Night is subtle -- arguably, too subtle. Nevertheless, my distaste evaporated one Wall Street–haunted 6 a.m. when I stuck it on in the disconsolate mood I thought it deserved and felt track after unexpectedly restorative track seep into my up-too-early brain. 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.

Because ultimately, that's what's at stake. The Heroes crew are dissenting believers. Working diligently within a putatively democratic cultural system, they unite against what most decent people would call that system's cruelest sin. The Dark Was the Night artists are outsiders. Their cliquish obscurantism, valorized dolor, and disdain for everyday pleasures all reflect a worldview -- often a callow, snobbish, or perverse worldview, but no less substantive for that -- in which Bush II was normative. Irony, withdrawal, and organic gardens ensued. Dark Was the Night makes both poetry and good sense out of this defeatism, which it rises above by coming out against an evil long associated with nonconformists like the artists who made it happen.

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. A few seem irredeemable, though you never know -- My Brightest Diamond, José González, probably Bon Iver, definitely Sigur Ros icespawn Riceboy Sleeps. But most are in between. This category includes not just scene-seasoned overrateds but gifted précieuses like Cat Power, Andrew Bird, Beirut, and the paradigmatic Antony Hegarty. But it's most notable for the kind of worthies whose albums never quite take a guy home: Feist, Ben Gibbard, the Decemberists, Iron & Wine, Yeasayer, the Books, the National themselves. 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. In true MP3-blog manner, just as one person who can't sustain a whole album wears down, another steps to the mic and changes things up.

Take the opening "Knotty Pine," which teams alt-rock don David Byrne, who decided he was too big for Talking Heads 20 years ago and has been proving he was wrong ever since, and the Dirty Projectors, who made their bones with an album of deliberately unrecognizable Black Flag "covers." Extreme soprano and high-end synth cut across the self-possession into which Byrne's trademark anxiety has evolved, rendering the "overabundance overindulgence" of the lyric cautionary instead of complacent. Soon the faux-laptop Books spritz up José González's impassivity, the perpetually overstated Sharon Jones respects the perpetually understated Shuggie Otis to a welcome draw, the New Pornographers lay some affect on their own evasive Dan Bejar, Antony is grounded by a piece of Dylan juvenilia that echoes the hootenanny favorite "500 Miles," one of half a dozen folk chestnuts that let song form in the back door, injecting historical consciousness and tune appeal into the prevailing abstractionism.

Oh yes, tune appeal. The melodies are too subtle, but with their way cleared by those folk songs they do emerge, clattering comfortably against each other. And while the lyrics are less clear and striking than on Heroes, they give up more than their allotted measure of meaning. At least half a dozen -- including a well nigh explicit anti-Bush takeout from the normally muzzy My Morning Jacket -- address political questions more candidly than is fashionable in this world, and just as many shoulder the task of questioning subcultural norms, an essential undertaking on a record designed to put into action what Aaron Dessner calls the "collective social awareness" of his musical compadres. The most telling is the National's own "So Far Around the Bend," a sweet farewell to a scenester who outlived her relevance and came to an unknown end.

One of the finest songs here achieves relevance in just one minute right after the Decemberists extend the endless "Sleepless" to eight. In "Die," the northwest-by-southeast electric folk duo Iron & Wine boast ironically about how they and their friends have improved on their parents: "And our babies never cry/And we can look you in the eye/And say we're not afraid to die." In an admirable Red Hot tradition, sequencing means a lot on this set, so it's significant that "Die" is tucked away on the more fluent but darker and less obviously songful first disc when it could as easily have played as a killer coda to the brighter, starrier second disc. The Dessners and their cohort aren't volunteering to rejoin the rest of the human race. Their pride and pessimism remain intact and then some. But there's enough truth and beauty in their version of the pop/whatever future to make me glad they haven't lost their attitude.

About the Columnist
Robert Christgau is a critic at All Things Considered, writes for the National Arts Journalism Program's ARTicles blog, teaches in NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, and has published five books. His highly searchable website is robertchristgau.com.

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