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By John Brodeur

Various Artists

Dark Was the Night

Twenty years ago, a wicked array of the day’s talent came together for Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter, a music and video project benefiting the Red Hot Organization. The widely championed project was one of the first large-scale pop-culture efforts to raise money and awareness for HIV and AIDS, and it became the cornerstone of a series that would produce like-minded compilations in a number of themes—Latin, country, Afrobeat, Gershwin—over the ensuing dozen-or-so years, raising about 7 million dollars for AIDS research and relief along the way.

Serving as an unofficial celebration of the project’s 20th year and a reminder that AIDS is still a major concern, Dark Was the Night picks up, more or less, where 1993’s No Alternative left off. It’s a comprehensive cross-section of the indie-music scene, circa 2009. Curated and produced by members of the National, the project includes exclusive contributions from the likes of the Decemberists, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Spoon, My Morning Jacket—if it’s Pitchfork-approved, it’s here.

Dark Was the Night is surprisingly cohesive for a two-disc, multi-artist set. It’s well worth picking up for its several inspired collaborations (Dirty Projectors team up with Red Hot + Blue vet David Byrne for set-opener “Knotty Pine,” which plays like something from one of Byrne’s ’90s solo records; Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the National’s Aaron Dessner offer the bone-chilling “Big Red Machine”) and smart updates (North Adams, Mass., duo the Books deliver a reverent modernization of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song”; Cat Power continues her recent blues-infused renaissance with a woozy rendition of “Amazing Grace”).

More than anything, this is a celebration of voices. The “alternative” music community represented here has some exceptional ones: Vernon, Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear’s Edward Droste, Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam, Antony Hegarty (Antony and the Johnsons). And the ladies, though few in number, make their contributions count: Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond stole the recent Decemberists LP out from under them, and her band’s swinging, swaggering “Feeling Good” has the same effect here. Then there’s the aforementioned Cat Power track, and Feist (teamed separately with Grizzly Bear and Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard), and Sharon Jones. Sharon Freaking Jones! Worthy cause? Yup. Good value-cost ratio? Damn right. Now go get it.

SeÑor Coconut

Around the World

SeÑor Coconut is the brainchild of Uwe Schmidt, aka Atom. Based in Chile, he unveiled this ensemble with the 2000 album El Baile Aleman, which was a full set of Latin-configured and electronically filigreed music by Kraftwerk. This was no mere stunt; the German-born producer and DJ was deeply influenced by those ’70s electronica pioneers. This time out he covers songs by, among others, Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams”), Trio (“Da Da Da”), Prince (“Kiss”), Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Corcovado”), Perez Prado (“Que Rico El Mambo”), and Daft Punk (the title track). Fueled by the dance rhythms of rumbas, cha-chas, mambos and merengues, this is vibrant music, with his choice of material, arrangements and production allowing the strength of the compositions to be celebrated. The only flat spot is the first of the two disc-closing bonus tracks, “Dreams Are My Reality.” On this one vocalist Louie Austen’s Vegas-isms tip the balance into parody. Happily, the closer is another departure, Atom’s full-throttle remix of Les Baxter’s “Voodoo Dreams.” Blast off!

—David Greenberger


Beacons of Ancestorship

Seminal post-rock band Tortoise have long been a case study for the petty infight between rival camps of improvisational rock. With the exception of an occasional European tour or a curatorial gig at the All Tomorrows Parties festival, the band stay cloistered in their incredibly fertile Chicago art-rock circle and so, for the most part can shirk any association with acts that might otherwise get labeled “jam.” But, if you handed Beacons of Ancestorship—their sixth full-length studio album (due out in June) in a career that stretches nearly 20 years—to anyone loyal to the Pitchfork set and had them listen to it blind, I’d be surprised if they didn’t attribute a few of the tracks to STS9 or Lotus.

This might sound like blasphemy to some, but all it really means is that artful rock compositions and deep groove- orientation are fundamentally compatible. Opener “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” is an eight-minute treatise that introduces the record in the manner that “Djed” did for the band’s classic Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The most noticeable difference is the song’s spacey breaks and architectural dub. Without ever shedding rock-band instrumentation entirely, the disc is the band’s most electronic yet, but its great strength is its almost autistic precision. “Penumbra” has a glitchy syncopation that calls to mind certain Madlib tracks, while the light industrial stomp of “Monument Six One Thousand” sounds like a leftover track from Thom York’s The Eraser.

The x-factor in all of this is guitarist Jeff Parker, whose playing has a quirky, identifiable quality not unlike fellow Chicagoan Nels Cline. He casts plenty of Robert Fripp-style lines on “Prepare Your Coffin,” but his most brilliant work is compositional. “Yinxianghechengqi” is an egg-headed, math-rock ode to Bad Brains, and “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One” sounds a bit like Ry Cooder in its dry-throated crossing of spaghetti Western and spy movie themes.

The scope of this band’s influence has always exceeded the range of their touring, and as post-rock becomes increasingly dilute the more prime-time dramas it shows up in, it’s unlikely that this disc will get the fanfare it deserves. The band members are pushing middle age these days, so they’ll probably content themselves with a cursory European tour—but here’s hoping that EMPAC can persuade them otherwise. Hint hint.

—Josh Potter

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