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Future Soundtrack for America
Release Date: August 17, 2004
Future Soundtrack for America is a non-profit album organized as a collaborative effort by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, Barsuk Records, and McSweeney's. As is stated on the album cover (which is recreated in noded ASCII form above), all proceeds from the album are used to support non-profit progressive political organizations. Among these organizations (profiled on the liner notes of the disc) are MoveOn.org, Music For America, Common Assets Action Fund, The Sierra Club, and the League of Pissed Off Voters.
The album was largely organized by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, who conceived of the idea in early 2004. Says Flansburgh: As a citizen, I felt like we're living in an extreme time and I feel I'm very nervous and unhappy with the state of the world and I wanted to do something other than just shake my fist at the TV. Thus, it should not come as any sort of a surprise that the music on this album reflects a similar perspective; in other words, a decidedly anti-Bush administration slant.
That's not to say all of the songs are political in nature; many of them are not. Yet a perfunctory examination of the track titles is pretty clear: This Will Be Our Year, Move On, Jerry Falwell Destroyed the Earth, and A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free paint a pretty clear picture of the perspective taken by this disc. Regardless of your political stance, however, you have to respect the level of activism represented here. The album includes a large number of very well known artists (R.E.M., They Might Be Giants, Blink 182, and The Flaming Lips); getting them all on one disc indicates a large amount of legal work getting involved corporations signing off on this concept.
And it's quite listenable, too.
OK Go, This Will Be Our Year (2:04)
The disc opens with a very pleasant, somewhat mellow cover of The Zombies' 1968 semi-political song, and it sets the feeling that this entire disc conveys; mellow pop used as non-confrontational protest. This track is actually quite faithful to the original, seething with 1960s psychedelia feeling.
David Byrne, Ain't Got So Far To Go (4:07)
This is my favorite track on the disc, hands down. Listen up, kids; David Byrne shows us once again how to do things right, but I've come to expect little else from the master of The Talking Heads. This is a definitive protest song and, if it were widely distributed, this could be the If I Had A Hammer of our times. It is a truly great protest song and worth the price of entry alone.
Jimmy Eat World, Game Of Pricks (live on the BBC) (1:53)
After Byrne's soaring protest song, Jimmy Eat World throws down a rocking cover of this Guided By Voices song. It ostensibly fits the protest theme of the album, but rather weakly; mostly, it's just a pleasant rock blast under two minutes in length.
Death Cab For Cutie, This Temporary Life (4:37)
Well, it's emo, for better or worse. This is a moody, downbeat, drawn-out rock number with very mellow though high pitched male vocalization with surprisingly good harmonies. The problem I have with this group is that many of their songs sound virtually identical to me; I'm not criticizing their music for being poor, just that they stick to one sound and don't seem to vary much. Fortunately, for the sake of this compilation, it fits in well.
Blink-182, I Miss You (James Guthrie mix) (4:25)
This is a rather typical Blink 182 song without much of a protest theme, but this version of the song is quite good because of the mixing done to it, giving the song a spacy yet catchy and driving feel. It uses the old New Wave trick of fusing upbeat sounds with downbeat lyrics, creating a nice song, although perhaps not one that really fits on the compilation. However, it might inspire some of those Blink fans out there to pick up the disc.
Mike Doughty, Move On (4:14)
Hmmm... from the title, can you guess what this might be about? This song is about progressive politics and how groups need to continually readress and re-evaluate their beliefs and actions. This song is very good and would perhaps be the highlight of the album if not for David Byrne's stellar contribution. A lyrical sample: Yeah, I believe the war is wrong / I don't believe that nations can be steered / Lead the world with smarts and compassion / by example, not coercion, force and fear. Like Byrne's contribution, I can imagine this song being used as an actual protest song, being sung at protest rallies and so forth.
Ben Kweller, Jerry Falwell Destroyed Earth (1:21)
This is a nice straightforward rock song that ends too soon, leaving only the most interesting title on the album behind. Just when you think the song is getting going, it abruptly ends.
Sleater-Kinney, Off With Your Head (2:26)
Like punkish rock with female lead vocals? That's exactly what Sleater-Kinney's contribution to the disc is, but it doesn't seem to really meet the protest theme of the disc like many of the other songs here, other than the general commentary on the poison that is a lie. Solid track, but it doesn't fit the overall message of the disc.
R.E.M., Final Straw (MoveOn Mix) (4:07)
This song was released by R.E.M. to the internet in March 2003 as a protest song against the war in Iraq, appearing here in a slightly remixed form. The song's lyrics are below standard for what you might expect from R.E.M. until the close: Then I raise my voice up higher / And I look you in the eye / And I offer love with one condition / With conviction, tell me why / Look me in the eye / Tell me why.
This sums up the true sentiment of the entire anti-war movement in the United States
: actions are fine if they can clearly be justified
; the war with Iraq
Bright Eyes, Going For The Gold (live) (5:46)
Bright Eyes was one of a handful of groups I was unfamiliar with before this compilation, and that isn't going to change because of this track, perhaps the weakest on the disc. The artist seems to be trying to emulate Tom Waits on an emo kick, which comes off about as exciting as you might expect. Much of the recording is incomprehensible a capella, and I've already found the skip button with just a few listens.
The Long Winters, The Commander Thinks Aloud (4:19)
This group reminds me a lot of The Flaming Lips, and that's a sincere compliment from me, a longtime fan of the Lips. This is a mellow pop song with electronica elements about the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (thanks to sneak241 for clarification). This is a musical island in the weak middle of the disc, as the two tracks around it are less than stellar.
will.i.am of Black Eyed Peas, Money (4:10)
This is a less-than-appealing example of hip hop that doesn't show off anything new that can be done with the genre (if you want that, listen to Jurassic 5 or The Roots, either of which would have made me flip with their appearance here). It's a mellow number not driven by bass, which is a good thing, as it doesn't completely reject the sound of the rest of the album, but it is not one of the high points.
They Might Be Giants, Tippecanoe And Tyler Too (1:38)
Fortunately, we now get to a long run of good stuff, starting off with a cover of an 1840 campaign song from the William Henry Harrison presidential campaign that comes off as simultaneously frightening and authentically old. This song is harsh about his opponent, Martin van Buren, and it sets the stage for sloganeering in campaign politics; it is so appropriate that it is on this disc, and also very appropriate from the band that recorded James K. Polk (the winner of the very next presidential election).
Clem Snide, The Ballad of David Icke (1:51)
This song is stark and nearly a capella, yet carrying forward with a simple rhythm. In other words, it harkens back to the great folk tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, surprising for a New York punk band. David Icke, the namesake of this song, is an interesting case in himself, having led a resurgence of the Green Party in Europe in the late 1980s before completely diving off the deep end into some serious kook-dom. If you doubt this, read the David Icke node. The song mostly laments this, saying here is a man destroyed by elements that opposed him, mostly internally.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Date With The Night (live) (3:02)
After the relative mellow flow of the last several tracks, this is something of an abrasive wake up call, something of a punk surf song. The lead vocalist here sounds like a cat hyped up on meth but the song drives along at an enjoyable pace. What's being said here? I can't tell, but the number is catchy.
Fountains Of Wayne, Everything's Ruined (acoustic) (2:22)
I was expecting this to be a cover of the Faith No More song, but in fact this is a nice little acoustic number about how with one fell swoop, everything's ruined. It's very mellow and pleasant, and quite appealing to those who were fans of the sound of the band's big mainstream hit, Stacy's Mom.
Nada Surf, Your Legs Grow (2:45)
This is one of the great overlooked bands of the 1990s, mostly because their one "hit" Popular (which sounded little like the band's other songs) was played to death on MTV and their follow-up album The Proximity Effect was lost in recording industry purgatory for four years. This is another mellow protest-sounding song, which fits in well with the rest of the disc.
The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (live on the BBC) (3:28)
I am thrilled that the Flaming Lips appear on this album, and this song is a wonderful introduction to their sound in an acoustic form. Interestingly, one should just ignore the title and listen to the song; this song is perfectly appropriate as it is all about fighting a seemingly unwinnable fight. If you like this even a bit as much as I do, look into picking up the full album.
Old 97's, Northern Line (4:23)
From mellow, acoustic alt-pop, we move into a somewhat abrasive alt-country song, which is an interesting switch. This song is about the decay of industry in towns, where the old railroad system is dying out and leaving towns bare and empty; interestingly, there is a distinct reference to the source of the band's name, The Wreck of the Old 97.
Laura Cantrell, Sam Stone (4:43)
Laura Cantrell is also an alt-country performer with a wonderful feminine voice; here, she covers a well-known John Prine song. This is very clearly an anti-war song, chronicling the destruction of the titular character after returning home from a war. Cantrell's voice is almost hypnotic to me, and the arrangement of the song lets the whole number be carried by her; it's one of the (many) high points of this disc.
Tom Waits, Day After Tomorrow (5:59)
This song is scheduled to appear on Tom's next album and is just as much a protest song as the predecessor on this disc. It's almost exactly what you would expect from Tom Waits: a depressed soldier writing home to his family, with Tom's earthy voice half-reading half-singing the lyrics. The closing, as Tom hums along to the music, is eerie and yet comfortable, just as I feel whenever I listen to Tom Waits.
Elliott Smith, A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free (4:31)
This is perhaps the most interesting track on the album, as it was recorded shortly before Elliott's untimely death in late 2003 in preparations for his next album, which may or may not be released someday. This entire song comes off as an exercise in intense but muted acrimony, which appropriately finishes off the disc.
Even if you don't agree with the anti-Bush politics of this disc, you can't argue with the fact that this is protest at its finest. These individuals have taken the gifts God gave them and utilized them to express their perspectives, then used the proceeds from these musical expressions to further their cause. Music has always been a very powerful form of political protest, from Tippecanoe and Tyler Too and This Land Is Your Land to If I Had A Hammer and Blowin' In The Wind. This disc is a continuation of that proud tradition, and regardless of your political perspective, it should make you proud that we live in a world where people can express their viewpoints and work for their causes in such a way.