When I first heard about Tinted Windows, it seemed like a potentially disastrous conglomeration: a supergroup including former members of Smashing Pumpkins, Cheap Trick, Fountains of Wayne, and … Hanson.
Wait! Don’t click away just yet.
Taylor Hanson’s not a kid anymore – and he’s grown a fair bit as a vocalist, matching his still-impressive flexibility with a bit more grit up top. Indeed, Hanson’s post-pubescent pipes seem ideally suited to power pop hooks such as those found on songs “Kind of a Girl” and “We Got Something.”
Meanwhile, guitarist James Iha, bassist Adam Schlesinger, and drummer Bun E. Carlos have crafted punchy arrangements that strike a nice balance between power pop and mainstream rock. Iha’s chops remain mighty impressive. He unleashes a torrent of riffs on “Can’t Get a Read on You.” The guitarist has also written a winsomely poppy “Cha Cha,” which suites Hanson’s singing quite well. While all of the non-percussionist band members contributed to the songwriting, one can hear Schlesinger’s influence quite palpably: Fountains of Wayne fans are apt to be most pleased.
Those who can put aside their knee jerk reactions and jaded preconceptions are bound to be pleasantly surprised.
It’s hard to believe that this is the twentieth installment in Red Hot’s benefit compilation series to raise funds for and awareness of people with HIV/AIDS; how time flies and, regrettably, illnesses stubbornly persist. While the Red Hot series has often mustered star-power, it has never been this consistent in its musical inspiration. This is certainly in part due to excellent curating by the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Dark was the Night features two discs of recordings by indie’s finest, including imaginative covers and special collaborations.
David Byrne and the Dirty Projectors, are lovably quirky and rhythmically buoyant on “Knotty Pine.” Kronos Quartet provides an instrumental rendering of the Blind Willie Johnson song that is the collection’s namesake; the unusual juxtaposition of blues and string quartet indicative of the imaginative pairings found throughout. Books and José Gonzalez deliver a multilayered rendition of Nick Drake’s “The Cello Song.” Antony Hegarty and Bryce Dessner supply a touching, homespun version of Bob Dylan’s “I was Young When I left Home.”
There are very few people I’d prefer to hear singing Vashti Bunyan than Vashti herself, but Feist and Ben Gibbard create a cozily atmospheric version of “Train Song.” Beirut continues its lustrously sung love-letter to France with “Mimizan.” Stuart Murdoch sans Belle and Sebastian is still endearing – lopsided, lyrical, and sweet-voiced – on “Another Saturday.
And this is hardly the half of it. Dark was the Night is mandatory listening – how often do you hear that about a benefit CD?
While his regular gig is as keyboardist for the Hold Steady, Franz Nicolay makes a compelling case for his work as a solo act on Major General. ”This World is an Open Door” and “Quiet Where I Lie” provide a badly needed update to the Springsteen model of arena rock. He’s brash and occasionally profane on “Confessions of a Failed Casanova,” leading a high-octane band through spirited choruses. “Hey Dad” incorporates banjo and Hammond organ into the proceedings, unveiling a more multi-faceted arranging style.
Although the energetic rockers are stirring, it’s also nice to hear Nicolay forge different musical pathways. A case in point is “Do we Not Live in Dreams,” where, accompanied by a swinging clarinet solo, he adopts a breezy, jazz pop style a lá Mose Allison (although, ironically, with guitar as the comping instrument instead of piano). Like Billy Joel, he’s able to channel Chopinesque piano textures into a rock context, demonstrating this to good effect on the emotive “Dead Sailors.” Nicolay is as talented as he is versatile.
Tunes: some composers – Mozart, Schubert, Berlin, Gershwin, McCartney, Wilson, Pollard – grace us with them abundantly. They may make it sound easy, but the artists above (and, of course, several others) are a rare breed; they seem to be able to capture the perpetually memorable in a single melodic gesture. A.C. Newman, whose day-job is with power-pop super group the New Pornographers, is another of these elegant tunesmiths. Whether his songwriting is in service of group projects with the aforementioned band-mates or for solo work, it is nearly always immediately striking and eminently durable fare.
His latest for Matador, Get Guilty, is a case in point. Song after song, the tunes keep coming, buoying three and four minute marvels – “There are Maybe Ten or Twelve,” “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer,” and “Submarines of Stockholm,” to name a few – with a graceful exuberance.