In 1993, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins and Pavement brought AIDS activism into the bedrooms of grunge-obsessed teens on the benefit album ” No Alternative” marrying music to message in a way that registered strongly with Generation X.
The project, organized by the Red Hot Organization — an international production company dedicated to fighting AIDs through pop culture — and released by Arista Records sold 292,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan and generated several modern rock radio hits. But the success was a mixed blessing; other major labels went out of their way to discourage radio airplay, because they thought it would compete with their own promotions for the contributing artists. (Geffen famously refused to allow Red Hot to use Nirvana’s name on the packaging.)
Red Hot isn’t dealing with any of those problems as it prepares for the February 17 release of “Dark Was the Night” a sort of indie rock sequel to “No Alternative” curated by the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. To be issued by 4AD, the 32-song collection showcases the leading lights of the genre, including Spoon, Arcade Fire, Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, Andrew Bird, Yo La Tengo, the New Pornographers and the National itself. Proceeds will benefit as-yet-undetermined AIDS organizations.
“On this record, we tried to capture this musical renaissance, which may not have the cultural impact of grunge or punk, but is equally significant from a cultural and creative standpoint,” said Red Hot co-founder John Carlin, who executive-produced the album. “It’s an assertion of Aaron and Bryce’s generation. These artists are not fringe or marginal.”
Carlin has known Aaron Dessner since 1999, when he hired him fresh out of college to work at his Web design company, Funny Garbage He was an early supporter of the National, the band that became Dessner’s full-time job in 2005, and the pair remained close as the band eventually signed with Beggars Banquet and garnered international renown.
Two years ago, they presented the idea for an indie-centric Red Hot album to Beggars Group heads Martin Mills and Richard Russell, who agreed on a budget and stepped aside while the creative process got rolling. “Dark Was the Night,” which also boasts tracks from My Morning Jacket, Kronos Quartet and Feist is the first Red Hot project to be released by an indie label.
“Bryce and I found ourselves in the midst of all of our peers and in a position to invite them to participate in this,” Dessner said. “Almost everybody was willing to donate their time and their music.”
“Dark Was the Night” features a number of intriguing collaborations, among them Feist with Ben Gibbard and Grizzly Bear Dirty Projectors with David Byrne, the Books with Jose Gonzalez, Aaron Dessner with Bon Iver and Bryce Dessner with Antony.
Songs from the album, which is also available with a different sequence as a triple-vinyl set, were rolled out one per day on a dedicated MySpace site leading up to release date.
“This is a project about the best of new music, but there are old-fashioned pleasures, like listening to it in sequence and holding the package in your hand,” Carlin said. “The intent was not for folks to cherry-pick a track from their favorite artists, but to see it as a coherent, creative expression.”