Various Artists

The Future Soundtrack for America Comp

(Barsuk; 2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 18 August 2004

What is Dave Egger’s doing reviewing music? The same question could be asked of me, I suppose, but at least I don’t have a publishing company to run or another few novels to write. All the same, it seems Eggers is increasingly tuning his interest toward music; he is now a contributor to the increasingly-awful Spin magazine and, to coincide with the release of McSweeney’s Future Dictionary of America, he has roped Barsuk records into releasing The Future Soundtrack for America. At least Nick Hornby didn’t envision his music book/mix tape as some over-blown junior high project, but then again it didn’t turn out so well either.

The book itself, or at least as much of it as I could bring myself to read, is really worth avoiding. The premise (and I can totally imagine a sixth-grader pitching this to the McSweeney’s staff and having Eggers nodding along the whole time) is that 150 or so prominent authors contribute “definitions” of words that will be in use circa 2050. There is no sense that the authors really understood the concept (they probably all owed Eggers money or something), so the project lacks any sense of unity. Agh, what am I doing reviewing a book?

There is one point of the book/CD that is entirely inexcusable. D.C. Berman contributes six definitions to the book and there is no Silver Jews track on the CD. Whoever was ultimately responsible for the compilation was able to wrangle songs from R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, Tom Waits, and even Elliott Smith, and yet we get nothing new from one of the best indie rock songwriters of the 90’s? Clearly off to a bad start.

It’s hard to dislike a compilation with such good intentions (all the proceeds from the book and compilation go to progressive causes), but it’s almost more worthwhile to just make a contribution to the Sierra Club, download the five or six great songs on the CD and leave the rest in the scrap heap where they belong.

OK Go kick things off with the catchy-yet-middling “This Will Be Our Year,” and are followed with the simply middling “Ain’t Got so Far to Go,” which just proves that David Byrne post-Talking Heads, even when produced by Morcheeba, is really, really dull. Jimmy Eat World provide the funniest song on the comp with their absolutely flawless cover of Guided by Voices’s classic “Game of Pricks,” which is funny mostly because everyone thinks it actually is Guided by Voices.

Death Cab for Cutie provides the dreadful “This Temporary Life,” which is terrible even by the excruciatingly low-standard set by Transatlantacism. I’m just going to ignore the Blink-182 and Ben Kweller songs entirely (just too easy a target), but they do border one of the decent songs on the comp, Mike Doughty’s “Move On.” It’s sad that the former Soul Coughing leader is the only artist on the disc not to have a record label to “appear courtesy of." Sleater-Kinney get things moving with One Beat b-side “Off With Your Head,” and R.E.M.’s “Final Straw” is another worthwhile track.

And then comes the Bright Eyes. Oberst gives Death Cab a run for their money in the sad-bastard category, though the worst part of his “Going for the Gold” may be the tragic misuse of Jim James and M. Ward, who both barely appear on the song for which they performed. The Long Winters, Clem Snide, and Nada Surf managed to contribute three remarkably similar, vocal-driven songs. The Long Winters’s “The Commander Thinks Aloud” is the best of the three, followed by Nada Surf’s surprisingly decent “Your Leg’s Grow”, and Eef Barzelay goes solo a capella for Clem Snide’s pointless “The Ballad of David Iche.”

The inclusion of Will.I.Am’s “Money” is strange, as it is neither new, live, nor remixed. It wasn’t a great track to begin with, and hasn’t aged particularly well. They Might be Giants cover the 1840 political tune “Tippacanoe & Tyler Too,” which is entertaining as a reminder of why we should oppose both the Harrison/Tyler ticket and any extension of TMBG’s record contract. Yeah Yeah Yeah’s live version of “Date With the Night” is full out rawk, and it does prove once again why Karen O should have those vocal chords insured. Fountains of Wayne’s acoustic version of “Everything’s Ruined” sounds a hell of a lot like the original (from their great self-titled debut), but maybe a bit more worn down, which serves the song well.

It’s the last section of the compilation that really makes it passable. Wayne Coyne gets his shit together for a terrific live version of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots”—and, as anyone who bought either of the Yoshimi EPs can testify, live recordings of the Flaming Lips can be extremely iffy, so this one is a pleasant surprise. The Old 97’s “Northern Line” is one of the best tracks on the comp, as Rhett shifts into prime croon mode. Laura Cantrall’s cover of John Prine’s great “Sam Stone” beats out Tom Wait’s over-long, extremely grizzled (kind of goes without saying with Waits) “Day After Tomorrow.”

This brings me to the most anticipated song on the entire compilation (and quite honestly the reason I even bought it). Elliott Smith’s final 7”—Pretty (Ugly Before)—had an early version of “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” which was instantly one of my favorite songs of last year. The song boasted a simple, beautiful melody and a driving organ line, paired with wonderfully disdainful lyrics that were reminiscent of Smith’s earlier work. The remixed version of the song serves as the final track on the forthcoming Songs From a Basement on a Hill, and veers sharply from the original. Rob Schnaph and Joanna Bolme have maintained the melody, but have put it through the Figure 8 blender, producing a far more baroque and intricate composition (it remains better than anything off Figure 8). Smith’s lyrics have also changed substantially, and largely for the better. The chorus of “The devil’s script sells you the script of the blackbird” trounces the original “No big brother is gonna bring me down now,” though the inclusion of the banal “Shine on me baby/ ’Cause it’s raining/ In my heart” is regrettable. All in all it comes off as far more bitter and angry, but there’s that beauty that Smith was always able to breathe into even the darkest of his songs.

We all know how much fun mix tapes can be, and to have access to so many great artists one would expect more from Barsuk’s Future Soundtrack for America, but they get caught up in trying to please everybody. No Black Eyed Peas fan is gonna pick this up just cause Will.I.Am gets a track. The indie rockers get a few, the folkies are probably just sticking to Devendra Banhart’s new comp, the emo kids get a couple, the older listeners get their Waits and TMBG, and when you come right down to it, nobody really wins. Well, except the Sierra Club.