Various artists “The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond” (Republic)
Oscar winner and 12-time Grammy recipient Bone Burnett delivers another soundtrack triumph with “The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond.”
With contributions from some of the top talents from today’s indie rock, hip-hop, country and roots music camps, the super-producer’s “Hunger Games” 16-track music collection boasts more variety than “Crazy Heart” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” perhaps his best known and most acclaimed previous soundtracks.
The sonic eclecticism suits the film’s dystopian near-future story, adapted from Suzanne Collins’ best-selling futuristic novel, about Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old from the Appalachian Mountains who winds up competing in “The Hunger Games,” a government-mandated televised spectacle in which 24 teenagers are forced to fight to the death. Even better, Burnett compelled all the artists on the soundtrack to contribute original songs inspired and based on the books, so the soundtrack truly and intimately relates the story.
Here is my track-by-track review:
1. Arcade Fire, “Abraham’s Daughter”: The indie rockers offer one of the end credits themes, an amped up funeral march that references the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac and provides an appropriately futuristic atmosphere. It opens with screeching, foreboding guitars before Regine Chassagne’s eerie vocals immediately shift the song to a kind of subdued hypnotic melody that builds to an intense but strictly controlled crescendo.
2. The Secret Sisters “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder”: The high-profile project had all sorts of big-name stars eager to contribute, but Burnett deserves kudos for making a place for lesser-known artists, including this pair of country-folk sisters from Alabama. Laura and Lydia Rogers get to show off their astounding close harmonies and vintage sensibilities with this lovely, shuffling number, with its mournful but sad tone really capturing the overarching sense of Collins’ story. The Punch Brothers provide the instrumentation here. (See track 6.)
3. Neko Case, “Nothing to Remember”: By the third track, it’s clear that Burnett has captured one crucial aspect of “The Hunger Games”: The soundtrack boasts lots of strong female voices. The indie rock chanteuse’s otherworldly but still down-home track is particularly suited to Katniss Everdeen in that it is emotional without getting too fussy, matter-of-fact but still a bit soft, tough and yet pretty. With Case’s lilting voice, the bouncy background vocals and intriguing percussion, this track has interesting energy.
4. Taylor Swift with The Civil Wars, “Safe and Sound”: The soundtrack’s lead single brings a touch of haunting mountain music, again fitting with Katniss’ Appalachian homeland. But the song also has a sense of urgency that suits the story. Country-pop princess Swift and Americana duo The Civil Wars seemed an odd pairing, but they make beautiful music, with Swift’s breathy but still stronger-than-usual vocals proving an interesting match with Joy Williams and John Paul White’s usual strong harmonizing.
5. Kid Cudi, “The Ruler And The Killer”: The hip-hop artist brings an entirely different energy and sound to the album, and it’s so incongruous that it absolutely succeeds in representing the ruthless President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his tyrannical government. Kid Cudi creates a forbidding, intense and sinister villain’s theme, with pounding percussion, brutal guitars and intimidating groans and growls thrown in for good measure.
6. Punch Brothers, “Dark Days”: The all-star contemporary bluegrass quintet turns the album back to its acoustic, rootsy side with a somber ode that despite Chris Thile’s vocals sounds like its coming straight from Katniss’ mouth as she pleas “mother listen to my heart,” “sister, hide our love away from the evil we both know” and “our love will see us through these dark, dark days, sister.” The Secret Sisters return the favor and lend their voices to the pretty, folksy tune.
7. The Decemberists, “One Engine”: Singer-songwriter Colin Meloy and Co. provide a distinct feeling of the chase with this insistent, demanding foot-stomper and its wailing electric guitars (including that tantalizingly if oh-so brief solo). You get the sense of both heavy themes and breathless action from this rocker.
8. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, “Daughter’s Lament”: The old-time jug band’s spookily stripped-down anthem is ripped straight from the book, telling about the death of Katniss’ father in the District 12 coal mines, the mockingjays that once accompanied her father’s crooning and the song-stopping effect his passing had on the heroine. Rhiannon Giddens’ vocals will send a chill up your spine in the best possible sense.
9. The Civil Wars, “Kingdom Come”: While Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars proved a tuneful if unlikely pairing with “Safe & Sound,” both artists make stronger impressions in their separate solo efforts. The folksy “Kingdom Come” spotlights The Civil Wars’ stunning vocals and strong harmonies as the intensity of this song builds and builds.
10. Glen Hansard, “Take The Heartland”: Despite the story’s many breathless fight sequences, Burnett wisely avoids loading the soundtrack with the usual rocking pulse-pounders. After all, this is a dystopian cautionary tale about kids killing other kids, so setting it to the usual head-bangers wouldn’t be right. Surprisingly, it’s Oscar-winning Irishman Hansard, best known for “Once” and The Swell Season, who brings the rock, screaming out the choruses against a backdrop of defiant guitars and powerhouse percussion. Again, it’s another sonic twist on the album but seems to suit the story.
11. Maroon 5 featuring Rozzi Crane, “Come Away To The Water” Pop-rockers Maroon 5 also veer off their usual course for the soundtrack. Frontman Adam Levine delivers an unusual vocal performance, with his beseeching and seductive crooning. It’s a captivating musical snare with gypsy beat and some strange and wonderful musical flourishes. It’s so pretty that it’s easy to miss the wicked intent.
12. Miranda Lambert featuring Pistol Annies, “Run Daddy Run” — Tishomingo resident Miranda Lambert and her fellow members of the all-girl trio the Pistol Annies – Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe – show off their tight harmonies and old-school, rootsy country sensibilities as they give voice to Katniss’ heartbreaking plea to her doomed father. They’ll give you goose bumps as they imploringly intone “Daddy can you hear/the devil drawing near/like a bullet from a gun/run daddy run.”
13. Jayme Dee, “Rules”: The newcomer’s foggy voice helps her stand out among the big-name singers, and you can hear the emotion simmering in her beautifully crafted folk rumination about breaking hearts and rules. It’s a bit too mellow and understated to wrest too much attention away from so many more intense songs, but it makes you want to hear more of what Dee can do.
14. Taylor Swift, “Eyes Open”: Fans who have been hoping that Swift would just keep getting better as a singer and songwriter can hear real evidence that their hopes are coming to fruition. “Eyes Open” sounds distinctly like one of her pop-country anthems, but it’s got a punkish edge to it. Plus, you can hear the ring of personal experience as she belts about the feeling of being watched and the need for watching your back when you’re under constant media scrutiny. The song is as suited to today’s fame-obsessed times as it is to the futuristic arena of “The Hunger Games.”
15. The Low Anthem, “Lover Is Childlike”: The ethereal, contemplative folk-rock ballad sounds just like the kind of a song that would be played in a near-future pastoral dystopia. It’s not the strongest track on the album, but it sort of creeps up on your and then stays with you.
16. Birdy, “Just A Game”: The 15-year-old English singer/songwriter/pianist delivers a baroque and very pretty piano ballad that spotlights her siren’s voice, which is just as clear sharp-edged as shattered crystal, and expresses the confusion of young, uncertain love.