By David Moore
How does one "review" a political fundraiser? Harshly criticizing this compilation's individual tracks would be like complaining about the stitching on a PBS tote bag. And, should I encourage others to purchase the record, I am essentially advocating donations toward the causes of organizations like MoveOn.org, Music for America, and The League of Pissed Off Voters. Unavoidably, politics takes center stage to the music on Future Soundtrack for America.
That said, Future Soundtrack for America is a predictably mixed grab-bag of B-sides, live numbers, and previously unreleased material, though to the credit of all parties involved, the vast majority of the music is excellent. OK Go kick off the record with "This Will Be Our Year", a straightforward Zombies cover that could only be recontextualized as a partisan rallying cry by some great stretch of the imagination. David Byrne's "Ain't Got So Far to Go", though, wastes no time getting to the point: His contribution is a folk narrative about a society's revolution against a "kingdom in chaos."
Most artists, however, settle for mild status quo boat-rocking. Death Cab for Cutie's "This Temporary Life" is a bittersweet reflection on middle class ennui. R.E.M. and Sleater-Kinney both contribute tracks ("Final Straw" and "Off With Your Head", respectively) with titles more scathing than their content. And on "Going for the Gold", a live acoustic recording spiked with ethereal slide guitar, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst avoids overt political commentary to spin a characteristically miserable tale about winning the "gold medal for idiots" by fashioning his unspoken guilt into a structured song at the behest of malevolent coffee shop patrons. Meanwhile, They Might Be Giants-- whose John Flansburgh, with Spike Jonze and McSweeney's Dave Eggers, was instrumental in the creation of this project-- continue to mine their treasure trove of historical gimmicks with "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too", a lively, vaguely reggae-inflected "cover" of an 1840 campaign song.
Unexpectedly, the compilation's biggest risk-takers are also among its lowest profile. Mike Doughty demonstrates a low-key acoustic direction in his post-Soul Coughing solo career, and offers the most articulate expression of the album's ever-present but undefined drive for governmental change on "Move On". He also presents a discernible platform, albeit in a language of generalities: "I believe the war is wrong/ I don't believe that nations can be steered." Ben Kweller wipes the Ben Foldsian smirk off his own face with the blistering "Jerry Falwell Destroyed Earth", a stripped-down mid-fi screed against the values of the far right.
Later, Clem Snide contributes "The Ballad of David Icke", a haunting a cappella number both virulent and sad in its paranoid depiction of a loved one stolen away by the "secret rulers of the world." Laura Cantrell's tear-stained barroom country cover of John Prine's "Sam Stone" is comparably powerful. The song, a devastating story of a soldier's disillusioned homecoming and subsequent descent into morphine addiction, is made newly powerful by Cantrell's disjointedly sweet interpretation.
And then there's the stitching. Jimmy Eat World's shockingly competent paint-by-numbers cover of Guided by Voices' "Game of Pricks" is initially a head-turner, but the song is only notable in comparison to the band's pre-existing mainstream pop-punk image. Elsewhere, Blink-182 and Yeah Yeah Yeahs bog down the album with mediocre rehashes of older material-- the inclusion of YYY's live number "Date With the Night" is particularly perplexing, as its poor sound quality makes the song difficult to endure. The Flaming Lips' rethinking of "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots", with its unadorned piano accompaniment, is so bland that even Wayne Coyne seems to get bored; toward the end of the song, he inserts an in-joke that undermines his sincerity for a self-satisfied giggle.
Fortunately, the fundraiser's organizers have wisely saved the best for last with Tom Waits' previously unreleased "Day After Tomorrow" and Elliott Smith's "A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free". Waits' guitar ballad has the intimate feel of a home recording, and his portrait of a young soldier's ambivalence toward war and his all-consuming homesickness transcend a simplistic anti-war message to evoke the hard universal truths of All Quiet on the Western Front. Smith's song is a perfect choice for the album's conclusion; his tactful, immaculate indie pop production provides the background for a touching account of struggle in a deranged world.
Future Soundtrack for America is a time capsule from one of the most divisive periods in the country's history. That it barely touches on the exasperation of the young audience it aspires to reach is not a weakness of the album, but rather a statement of just how desperate our political situation has become. A certain faction of Pitchfork's readership may not appreciate the partisan qualifications and editorial moralizing that go hand-in-hand with the advocacy of progressive causes, but all citizens, regardless of taste in music, have political responsibilities.