The Beatles, the Stones. Dylan. Stereolab, Spiritualized, the Minutemen. Even sad Nick Drake. The best music you'll hear on television these days is usually during the commercials. It will probably be some time before Volkswagen releases a compilation disc -- a disc, incidentally, that would be worth buying. In the interim, the best place to catch up with the weird way music works on television, and to consider what songs say about the shows where they appear, is your average record store, which will probably carry five out of six of these new TV soundtrack releases.
"Heart and Soul: New Songs From 'Ally McBeal'"
The songs on "Heart and Soul: New Songs From 'Ally McBeal'" might be the most disappointing thing on television since the final episode of "Seinfeld." The saddest part of "Ally McBeal" is that, in the past, writer David E. Kelley has shown that he understands the way that music works in everyday life better than most anyone. We wrap ourselves around songs. A pop number's greatest power is the meaning we assign it. Kelly knows this. He'll base a show around a Barry White song or hang an episode on the premise that Ally sees hallucinations of Al Green.
The problem with this release then? Where to begin? Let's start with vocalist and star Vonda Shepard -- a poor woman's Lucinda Williams at best, a two-bit piano lounge singer at worst. Shepard, who appears in almost every show fronting the bar band that plays where the lawyers unwind, murders some terrific songs on this collection of 14 from the show. It's almost criminal what she does to "Crying," flattening out all of the sharp trills that Roy Orbison once gave it. She over-sings the Beatles' "World Without Love" and complicates the simple tune with superfluous melodies.
Not even ace producer Mitchell Froom, who's worked with everyone from Suzanne Vega to Los Lobos to Cibo Matto, can save Shepard from her own songs. "Read Your Mind" and "100 Tears Away" depend on the simplest, most banal of rhyme schemes and Shepard doesn't have the force of personality to raise them above the pedestrian. Her other song, "Confetti," is a clueless, bitter piece with the singer attempting to declare her superiority over the "skinny little brats walking down Avenue A" with big words like "diaphanous" and "ephemeral." This woman is on every episode.
The only thing worse than Shepard is Kelly's insidious implication that no one banging up against 30 -- a group that includes both the characters on the show and the target audience at home -- can relate to anything except nostalgic R&B, throwback soft rock or cheap rip-offs of both. These songs, most of them sung by Shepard at the end of the show in that same Boston bar, are bland and stodgy as Beantown itself.
"Music From and Inspired by 'King of the Hill'"
If you think that Garth Brooks and Shania Twain have taken us to the point where country music and pop are essentially synonymous, then you'll find conspiracy on "Music From and Inspired by 'King of the Hill.'"
Here's the gimmick: Big, dumb country singers, like Faith Hill, Deana Carter and Travis Tritt cover rock songs like Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" and George Thorogood's "Move It on Over." (Yep, that last one was written by Hank Williams and country through-and-through, but the version here is a revved-up rocker, and Thorogood guests, too.)
It's hard to read this soundtrack, partly because it's hard to read "King of the Hill." The show began as a family comedy centered around Hank Hill, his wife Peggy, his son Bobby and his niece Luanne. At the start, it was pretty subtle send-up of Texas, strip-mall culture and borderline rednecks. The satire got thicker and thicker, to the point when the Wal-Mart proxy exploded during a Chuck Mangione concert. Sometime after that, the satire faded and "King of the Hill" took to situational humor, like Peggy's failed parachute jump, and neat, almost moralistic plots.
These days, "King of the Hill" is about as funny as the Brooks & Dunn version of Bob Seger's "Against the Wind" -- not very. And sometimes it's even disastrous, like the laughable "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground" duet between Willie Nelson and Mark McGrath, the peroxided lunkhead who fronts Sugar Ray.
Bits of dialog from the show pepper the soundtrack, including Hank and his pals standing around the yard sipping beer. Luanne sort of sing-wails "One Tin Soldier." And Hank does a short into and talks his way through Red Sovine's country-schmaltz classic "Teddy Bear." It's one of those talking trucker songs, about a crippled boy who finds buddies on the CB. It's sappy and silly -- once.
Elsewhere, it's onward on behalf of the global domination of country music. The good news? The odds are stacked against the interlopers. The Mavericks, a neocountrypolitan outfit not without talents, overdo "Down on the Corner," which simply doesn't work without John Fogerty's weird vocal blend of conviction and posturing. The Old 97's, a fantastic pop act that sometimes pretends it's a country band, slams through Marty Robbins' "El Paso." They massacre it, sure, but the song doesn't put up much resistance, either. And Deana Carter's completely straight version of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" falls right through the floor. The original take had a great hook, and was made bearable by Petty's lazy, gruff vocals and some pretty serious production work. Carter's version is all sequined Nashville, and just as bland.
You can say one thing about "King of the Hill": The show has a damn great theme song, a one minute little rave-up by the Refreshments that's as joyous as the ringing cowbell at the center of it. Leaving aside "The Simpsons" theme or the one on "That '70s Show," which uses a version of Big Star's "In the Street" reworked by Alex Chilton just for the show, it might be one of the best musical minutes on television. "And now, here's what you really bought the album for," says Hank, just before the end of the record, "our theme song." He's not wrong.
"Touched By an Angel: The Christmas Album"
One night last December, I was caught overnight in the Sea-Tac airport, iced out of San Francisco by a winter blast. I knew I was in for a long night, but I had no idea how bad it would get. Around 8, I caught a glimpse of a TV screen and ducked into a tiny concourse bar. No one was watching. I ordered a triple scotch and tipped the bartender big.
"Excuse me," I asked with my most practiced politesse. "Would you mind changing the channel to 'The Simpsons'?"
"Oh no," she said. "We have our own programs here."
"What do you mean?"
"We don't change the TV. I don't even know what channel that show's on."
"It's on Fox," I said.
I waited for a few minutes for the counter programming. The show was "Touched By an Angel." I tried to leave but the bartender wouldn't let me take my scotch. The episode was about a battered wife, a drug addict, a precious little girl and a staff of orderlies who happened to be angels.
It was the most uncomfortable night of my life. And then I had to sleep under fluorescent lights on the tile floor in front of the ticket counter with three dozen grumbling strangers.
The songs on this Christmas album, by Della Reese, Donna Summer, Amy Grant, Randy Travis and other God-fearing Christians, took me right back to that season of holiday joy.
"'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': The Album"
It's pretty amazing that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" even exists, much less that it anchors a fledgling network, reaps critical hosannas and enjoy a massive fan base. Based on a mediocre teen movie, it's enormously over-appreciated. Absurdly self-conscious, the show constantly stumbles over its own winks, especially any time it uses special effects. And the details are maddening. The girl who's supposed to be the nerd is incredibly cute, the boys are either tortured complexity or walking hormones -- and the star, her pouty lips and beach-girl 'do are about as commanding as cold milk. Sarah Michelle Gellar would be nothing without the teenspeak the show's writers put into her mouth.
At best, it's decent TV. And as a decent TV show, it's got a decent soundtrack. For starters, it comes from TVT, which is a pretty weird little label still independent in these days of media consolidation. That's another way of saying that the collection, which features songs by little guys like Guided by Voices and Rasputina, as well as tracks by alt biggies like Garbage and Black Lab, is not quite the sound of synergy that most teen pics have.
The Guided by Voices cut, "Teenage FBI," comes pretty close to the experience of the show. There's a little drive (the guitars), a bit of cheesiness (the keyboards) and some disconnect (an aging, unrepentant pop writer with a reputation for drinking too much singing a song about being in the "teenage F.B.I" -- on a television show about werewolves and vampires).
The rest of the tracks can be pretty much split down the middle. There are those that, at a stretch, have something to do with the "Buffy" theme, like Face to Face's "The Devil You Know (God Is a Man)," or Garbage's "Temptation Waits," which has a line that goes, "I'll tell you something/I am a demon." And then there are songs that are background for love scenes on the show, like the Sundays' limp version of the Rolling Stones chestnut "Wild Horses" and bluegrass phenom Alison Krauss & Union Station's pretty "It Doesn't Matter."
"Go Simpsonic With 'The Simpsons'"
In the past couple of years, there's been a resurgence of "Simpsons" merchandise, which from the creators' perspective is probably a good thing considering that "Futurama" action figures probably won't be adding much to the Matt Groening empire's coffers. Back in the early day, you could buy "Simpsons" hair barrettes, bubble bath and smushy yellow dolls. The T-shirts were so hot that bootleggers nicked the designs.
Now, "Simpsons" products are made for the more-than-casual fan: books, videotapes and two CDs of music from the show. The new "Go Simpsonic with 'The Simpsons'" is certainly a fan's affair, the second CD of songs and dialog snippets that originally appeared on the show.
With 53 tracks, the disc takes some active listening. You can't put it on and settle in on the couch with a magazine. It's good for three things: answering machines bits, mix-tape segues and remembering some of the best moments of the show. And that's not a bad thing. "The Simpsons" uses music differently from every other program on television, which is part of what makes the show unlike any other.
Alf Clausen's songs and scores, to say nothing of Danny Elfman's bombastic theme, are something special. To start with, they're extraordinarily witty. Listen to the Philip Glass version of the theme song for about as highbrow a joke as ever ends up on TV. Further, Clausen's songs do everything that classic musical numbers do. They're a lapse into the surreal and unreal, sort of a meta-commentary on the straight action, which makes them even more bizarre considering that their root is an animated show somewhat free of physics where all the characters have four fingers.
The songs are exquisite parodies and satires and, at the same time, Broadway tributes -- like the "Canyonero" television commercial, a poke at suburban recreational vehicles, or the "Cape Feare" medley, which includes Sideshow Bob ("Frasier's" Kelsey Grammer) singing "H.M.S. Pinafore." It goes without saying that they're catchy as hell.
The majority of the great songs -- Tito Puentes' "Segor Burns," the "Planet of the Apes" musical, the Stonecutters theme -- ended up on the first disc. But the second has a few jewels, including the Mary Poppins spoof, "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(annoyed grunt)cious," the "Candy Medley," which parodies Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy" and Devo's "Whip It," and "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase," a musical number that invents theme songs for fake TV shows. It's also loaded with what's become a "Simspons" staple: guest stars. The Ramones offer a tribute to Mr. Burns, Sonic Youth detunes the theme song, Linda Ronstadt sings a commercial for Homer's snow-removal nemesis, "Plow King," and Hank Williams Jr. does "Canyonero." (For some reason, Yo La Tengo's psychedelic take on the theme is MIA.)
"Friends" is one of most successful shows on television. That level of success means that the producers can pretty much can write their own ticket for music. To some degree, the show has made a semi-interesting decision. In general, instead of plucking hits off the radio or catalog songs that would give the show a sort of cool-by-association, it picks some smaller artists or off songs and sort of confers cool. It's a huge favor: The first "Friends" soundtrack CD sold something like 2 million copies and, of course, made stars of the L.A. pop band the Rembrandts for a heady few months.
The problem is that while "Friends" may know how to tell a joke, it's never been very cool. Like the first soundtrack installment, the second is as perky as the physical attributes of some of its stars.
Minneapolis' Semisonic delivers a fun live version of their own "Delicious." "Angel and the Jerk" is a pretty rare song collaboration between old punk rock (the Avengers' Penelope Houston) and new (Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong) and sounds like exactly what you'd think: slashing guitar, hook-driven and vocally buoyant. Those are the high points.
There are a lot of low points, starting with the dialog that runs across the disc. When I put on a CD, I more or less want to listen to music: not some battle-of-the-sexes joke that gets less and less funny each time I hear it. But maybe that's just me.
There's nothing funnier than bad music, which may be why the performance of "Smelly Cat," Phoebe's crappy acoustic novelty tune, is considered a classic moment in "Friends" lore. But bad music, like that dialog, also has a way of getting less and less funny. Here, sung with the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, "Smelly Cat" gets pounded into the ground with a false start, an acoustic version and a rocked-out electric version.
But that's only one kind of bad music on the soundtrack. Variations include Lisa Loeb's blow-away "Summer," Robbie Williams' slaughter of Pet Shop Boys' "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" and Deckard's "What Reason," which sounds like a Bush cover.
In a final bout of irony, the CD ends with a rap version, by a group called Thor-El, of that Rembrandts hit "I'll Be There for You." It's hard to say what's more cheesier: Thor-El's cheap, silly electronic beat, or the fact that the whitest show on television closes a lily-white soundtrack with a token rap song so clueless that it pretty much mocks itself.