"Many hearts have broken but we ain't got so far to go."
'The Future Soundtrack for America' was originally tucked inside the cover of The Future Dictionary of America, released last August through Dave Eggers' publishing concern, McSweeney's. A collaboration between Eggers, McSweeney's Staff, Barsuk Records, They Might Be Giants and hundreds of others, the Future.. project was fuelled by the disillusionment and exasperation with the nepotism and blind incompetence of the Bush administration. It targeted voter apathy by presenting a vision of what America could be with a stable political landscape, whilst proudly donating profits towards progressive political groups like Move On and The League Of Pissed Off Voters. But how does this compilation fare in the wake of November's crushing re-election?
What strikes you most about Future Soundtrack is its sense of balance. Possibly in the name of being as diverse as possible, here you'll find alt-rock legends (David Byrne, R.E.M.) amongst indie troubadours new and old (Death Cab For Cutie, Old 97's, Ben Kweller), rubbing shoulders with singer/songwriters (Soul Coughing's Mike Doughty), pop-punkers (well, a Blink 182 remix) and even a Black Eyed Pea (singular). While the diversity is admirable (and let's be honest, more marketable) in context, there are moments when regrettable sequencing threatens to undermine individual artists. Take the achingly sad acapella Clem Snide track 'The Ballad Of David Icke' or The Long Winters' superb 'The Commander Thinks Aloud' - a glorious ode to space travel that ends in turmoil ("The crew compartment is breaking up"). Both of these songs need time to breathe and propagate but feel out of place and awkward when followed by - in the case of the latter - Will.I.Am's sassy, sax laden 'Money', or - following Clem Snide - a truly awful live version of Yeah Yeah Yeah's 'Date With The Night', where Karen O pushes the 'quirky live vocals' concept to its limit (the only comparison I can think of is the sound of a cat drowning in sulphuric acid). The YYY's contribution isn't the only confusingly bad inclusion here, either. Wayne Coyne donates a unfathomably dull piano version of 'Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots' taken from a Jo Whiley session, R.E.M. offer the forgettable 'Final Straw' and Jimmy Eat World bring their own particular brand of BoreCore to Guided By Voices' 'Game Of Pricks'.
But as mentioned, 'Future Soundtrack..' being a lesson in balance means that for every wailing O, you've got a track like Death Cab For Cutie's 'This Temporary Life', a sweetly cyclical reflection on mortality that manages to display both passionate strength and cartwheeling grace. Or there's 'Sam Stone', Laura Cantrell's bittersweet story of the downfall of a returning soldier ("There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose") that recalls the very earliest country leanings in Rilo Kiley's back catalogue. While Conor Oberst milks his pseudo-tortured vocals on 'Going For The Gold', backing by My Morning Jacket's Jim James and M. Ward provides some welcome respite. Perhaps a vision of what Oberst's vocals could amount to if he dropped the injured puppy routine show themselves on the Old 97's weary 'Northern Line', all pedal steel and stomping country choruses. Finally, Mike Doughty offers perhaps the most personal and direct assessment of political values on 'Move On', with lyrics that straddle the line between heartfelt honesty and childish simplicity ("I love my country so much man/Like an exasperating friend").
As the honky-tonk piano of Elliott Smith's 'A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free' fades into silence, there's one moment from this compilation that stays with you. The lone guitar that opens David Byrne's 'Ain't Got So Far To Go' evokes a wide-eyed pioneer spirit that echoes around every handclap, thunderous tom roll and lush vocal in its four minute run. "Oh the water's rising/How will we get to the other shore?/Many hearts have broken but we/Ain't got to so far to go". Before November's re-election, these words must have had more resonance - what with the tense expectation cradled by so many American voters. While Future Soundtrack For America' is not without its flaws as a collection of songs, as a political fundraiser it still contains an urgency and important message executed with maturity and passion.
6Jesus Chigley's Score