Sharps & Flats

Led by Wilco, the Louvin Brothers and a dozen fine tunes, the "Jesus' Son" soundtrack actually works as a coherent whole.

Published July 19, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Various Artists
"'Jesus' Son' Soundtrack"

Movie soundtracks can be so annoying. Too often they sound like ill-conceived mix tapes, the songs chosen with lottery randomness. Of course, it's a bit difficult to avoid the clunky combinations. The songs are meant to add to the experience of watching various movie scenes, so it's not surprising that the typical soundtrack sounds not like a coherent, organic product, but a bunched-together afterthought. Movies with music as a central theme ("High Fidelity," "Diner," "American Graffiti") and a few other rare exceptions seem to avoid the typical soundtrack pitfalls. Even the much-lauded "Pulp Fiction" album suffered from movie dialogue that broke the flow of music.

Produced by Randall Poster, Joe Henry and Tony Margherita, the soundtrack to the new film "Jesus' Son" comes tantalizingly close to being an example of how to choose songs that work individually for the purposes of the movie and together as a thematic whole.

A collection of mostly minor hits by half-forgotten artists, "Jesus' Son" takes listeners on a journey from numbing isolation to carefree rapture and, finally, a subdued, fragile peace. The CD begins with Floyd Cramer's "Last Date," a piano-and-strings instrumental overflowing with walking-home-alone loneliness that is every bit as defeated as its title suggests. The song is followed by two rediscovered gems, Joe Tex's "The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)," and Barbara Mason's "Yes I'm Ready." Both Tex and Mason sing with a combination of optimism and despair, as if uncertain whether joy or misery is the fate that awaits them.

There's no such ambiguity on the soundtrack's emotional high points: Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson's exuberant "Lover's Holiday," or Tommy Roe's innocent and sweethearted "Sweet Pea," and even Henry's growlingly sure cover of Ray Charles' "Unchain My Heart."

Based on a collection of short stories by Denis Johnson, "Jesus' Son" is supposed to take place in the early 1970s. Interestingly, only two of the 13 songs included here -- Doug Sahm's "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone?" and the Raiders' "Indian Reservation" -- are of that vintage. The rest are from the '60s and '50s with the exception of the new songs by Wilco and Henry.

Where this collection stumbles is with the back-to-back inclusion of "Indian Reservation" and Sgt. Barry Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Berets." The topicality of both prevents them from adding to the timelessness evoked by the other songs. The two songs may make sense in the context of the movie, but here they only detract from the soundtrack's intriguing and moody vibe. That resumes with the Louvin Brothers' haunting "The Family Who Prays" and Wilco's treatment of Woody Guthrie's "Airline to Heaven." Nonetheless, the break is only a single unfortunate flaw in an otherwise-exceptional song collage.

By Joe Heim

Joe Heim is a frequent contributor to Salon. He lives in Washington.


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