Dave Eggers is nothing if not a busy guy. He oversees a daily webpage, a quarterly literary journal (both under the McSweeneys aegis), contributes to the McSweeneys monthly magazine, The Believer, writes novels and short stories, and now, with The Future Soundtrack for America, stumps for progressive social causes with the help of MoveOn.org and some of the biggest names in indie rock today. Phew. Who has time to sleep when the world needs saving?
If you’re of a certain political stripe, FSFA can be a bittersweet listen—the opening track, OK Go’s “This Will Be Our Year”, sounds like a hopeful anthem for a John Kerry election that never came to pass. But if you’re feeling blue—or at least blue-state—take heart: the Future Soundtrack for America is not just a musical John-Kerry-for-President bumper sticker (for what it’s worth, the album was released before the election). All the profits from FSFA go to non-profit progressive organizations; the album’s liner notes outline the efforts of civic groups like the Sierra Club and the Common Assets Action Fund. Regardless of your political bent, the album’s true message is, “Please get involved in or give money to causes that are important to you.”
But oh yeah, there’s songs on this soundtrack—22 of them to be exact, and it sounds like Dave Eggers’ iPod playlist (note: credit for organizing FSFA also goes to They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh, before I heap all the praise on Eggers), ranging from hip indie acts like Sleater-Kinney and Ben Kweller to elder rock statesmen like R.E.M. and Tom Waits. All the tunes are rare, unreleased or remixed, so there’s plenty of new songs to feed your brain. But as with any compilation, the tracks are of varying quality.
Tunes that hint at activism or peek into the human side of war fare better, as evinced by Waits, in full shambling balladeer mode, croaking “You can’t deny / The other side don’t wanna die / Any more than we do” on “Day After Tomorrow” or Laura Cantrell’s folksy cover of John Prine’s “Sam Stone”, which recounts the harrowing tribulations of a morphine-addicted war veteran. Meanwhile the album’s lyrical heart comes from Mike Doughty’s “Move On”. The erstwhile Soul Coughing frontman muses “I love my country so much man / Like an exasperating friend”. Couched in a friendly, jam band vibe (that is to say, an un-Soul Coughing vibe) the song pretty much sums up the point the album is trying to get across.
Some “activist” tunes fall flat. Ben Kweller’s “Jerry Falwell Destroyed Earth” trades subtlety for noise, and didn’t R.E.M. used to write some of the best politically-charged pop songs of the past 20 years? You’d never guess that the band that gave the world Life’s Rich Pageant and Document would also be responsible for the sullen mess of “Final Straw (Move On mix)”. And I suppose your opinion of They Might Be Giants would color your take on their “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”—the actual 1840 campaign song for William Henry Harrison. At the very least, the song reveals an early instance of political mudslinging: “Van [Buren, Harrison’s opponent] is a used up man!”
There’s plenty of apolitical tunes too: Clem Snide (Eef Barzelay, solo, really) contributes the a cappella “The Ballad of David Icke”; the Flaming Lips turn “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1” into a meditative piano ballad during a live BBC recording; you’ll have to imagine the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O dousing herself in beer during a live version of “Date With the Night” (Warning for the uninitiated: Karen O singing live sounds uncannily like Linda Blair in The Exorcist).
Future Soundtrack for America is basically a very good hour on a college radio station, and activism aside, it’s a useful snapshot of the indie rock scene, circa 2004. Good music, good causes—what more could you want?