For the past two decades, The Red Hot Organization has been using pop culture to create support and increase awareness for those suffering with HIV-AIDS – preventable and still-stigmatized diseases – mainly through music compilations. If the idea of a benefit album makes your toes curl, check the pedigree. No Alternative (1993) successfully gathered together a who´s who of college rockers (Sonic Youth, The Breeders) and WTF contributors (Sarah McLachlan?); subsequent releases have utilized the very best in country (Country, 1994) and hip hop (America Is Dying Slowly, 1996).

Now we have Dark Was the Night. Produced by the Dessner brothers of Brooklyn’s The National (who contribute “So Far Around the Bend”), the comp gathers together the greatest indie-folkish-rock artists of the aughts: Feist, Grizzly Bear, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine, Arcade Fire and more – 30-something songs on two discs. Although New York-centric, for practical reasons I assume, the range of talent is astonishing.

This release, not unlike its predecessors, functions on two levels. Obviously the seriousness of AIDS cannot be overshadowed or overstated, but the intention is to illuminate, no more, no less. Music is not suited for education (besides Schoolhouse Rock of course), and anyways, 30 songs about the same thing – despite the severity of said thing – would be a bit of a stretch.

So let’s focus on the entertainment level, the music, independent of context as much as possible. Disc one kicks off with “Knotty Pine”, a collaboration between The Dirty Projectors and former Talking Head David Byrne, who sort of melts harmonically into the background. Its placement is curious - the track is slight, though one of the more pop numbers here.

Grizzly Bear’s “Deep Blue Sea”, which has surfaced in various forms in the past, is augmented with clearer production and percussion. Another of their old tracks, “Service Bell” is redone with Feist taking up vocal duties, and the result, like most of the band’s work, ditches traditional structure in favour of atmosphere. The result is glorious.

The National appear variously; apart from the group track, guitarist Bryce Dessner teams with Antony Hegarty (sans The Johnsons) for a cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Was Young When I Left Home.” Hegarty has one of modern music’s most affecting and unique voices, which Dessner accentuates perfectly. Brother Aaron tries a similar trick, to less success, with Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver) on “Big Red Machine.”

The surprise highlight of the entire comp is Yeasayer’s “Tightrope.” I’ve been on the fence about this band – check out their abominable taste in cover art – but when they cut the fat out of their sound, it’s psychedelic bliss. Comps like this often feature the best of an artist’s pile of musical neglect, but damned if that tune isn’t as good or better than anything on their 2007 LP All Hour Cymbals.

Curiously enough, most of my favourite songs on Dark Was the Night come from acts I previously had little patience for, and the worst from those I held dear. The New Pornographers’ cloying pop stew is kept to a pleasant boil on “Hey, Snow White”; Spoon subdue their usual obnoxious fluff with the nifty “Well-Alright.” Conversely, the usually dependable Sufjan Stevens bombs out with an awful, 10-fucking-minute-long cover of Castanets’ “You Are the Blood”, while Arcade Fire scrapes the bottom of their barrel with the tired tune of “Lenin.” A could’ve-been-fantastic collaboration between Swedish singer Jose Gonzalez and NY samplers The Books goes limp with a version of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” – no attempt is made to mess around with the original at all, so why wouldn’t I just turn that on instead?

The result of Dark Was the Night will depend on your previous experience with these artists. If your ears have never been blessed by the beauty of Grizzly Bear, Feist, Beirut, etc., by all means, take this primer to heart. You will find rich rewards.

Dark Was the Night has caused the Internet to go ape shit with anticipation since the clearly geared-to-bloggers track list was announced. Those same blog readers and writers make up the majority of Internet pirates, so the album is not only an artistic curiosity, but a moral one as well. In any event, be sure to give equal listening time to the music and your conscience.

Various Artists, The Red Hot Organization
4AD Records
130 minutes

Staff writer Jessie Skinner tackles anything and everything thrown his way but has a natural bent for film, music and current events.