Contributions to liberal causes are rarely rewarded with more than a tote bag and a warm, tingly feeling of pride and accomplishment. “The Future Soundtrack for America,” a compilation of surprisingly good tracks by surprisingly good bands, is a fundraising tool for “(liberal) groups working for the public good in the 2004 election” that will put PBS’s member-support drives to shame. It’s only rock and roll, but John Kerry likes it.

This week, in a front-page article, the New York Times reported that “interest in the election among the young is near the highest level it has reached at any time since 18- to 20-year-olds were given the vote in 1972.” If the Iraq War isn’t enough to polarize even the most apathetic college students to arms, then the efforts of and America Coming Together (ACT) must have done the trick. On the music front alone, the two groups have together set up the enormous “Vote for Change” tour, which will bring acts like Bruce Springsteen and the Dave Matthews Band to swing states in October, and helped release “Soundtrack.”

The bands on the compilation are, on average, in a completely different league than the “Vote for Change” groups (who remembers Nada Surf?). Nevertheless, and despite what amounts to forgivable inconsistency, it succeeds admirably as a mix-CD, coming brilliantly alive toward its end.

The wide mix of songs and sounds allows “Soundtrack” to flow naturally from indie-rock to punk, hip-hop and acoustic folk. With few exceptions the songs aren’t held down by political messages, and most rely much more heavily on their content — and the listener’s interpretation — then superficial Bush-bashing. For example, the Flaming Lips’ live version of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” might bear a tenuous relationship to contemporary politics, but in context (and with a certain stretch of a drug-altered imagination) the evil machines at the song’s center might come bear some resemblance to Republicans.

The closest the CD gets to spelling out its politics are two anti-war songs, both embarrassingly weak: R.E.M.’s “Final Straw,” which is particularly disappointing because of the band’s stature, and Mike Doughty’s “Move On,” a song that sounds like it was written for a Nickelodeon contest to give a theme song.

Besides these songs, the only glaring weakness of “Future Soundtrack” is its morbid obesity. At 22 songs, its fatty mid-section could be cut down to half its size. First to go would be a Blink-182 song that was probably included as some sort of administrative error. A close second is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Date with the Night,” which was recorded live, and as a result lacks the tightness of the band’s studio recordings.

What seems like extraneous material to a college music reviewer might be exactly the reason why someone would buy this record in the first place, so maybe my complaint is invalid.

And, in the end, “Soundtrack” succeeds much more often than it fails. It opens with OK Go’s blissful cover of the Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year.” Though it’s a love song, its role is hard to miss: “Don’t let go of my hand, now the darkness has gone,” the chorus goes. “This will be our year, took a long time to come.”

The next track, David Byrne’s “Ain’t Got So Far to Go,” is an instantly-satisfying fairytale about America (or something like that) that channels the playful irreverence of “Future Dictionary of America,” a book that McSweeney’s has published to accompany “Future Soundtrack.” With entries by writers like Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers and Kurt Vonnegut, “Dictionary” imagines a futuristic, post-Bush American idiom in which, for instance, “rumsfeld” is a noun meaning “one who can stomach casualties.” Though much of the book’s words and art are plagued by self-satisfying cuteness and predictable pandering, the book is beautifully and inventively put together and is a valuable companion to the CD.

Other highlights of “Future Soundtrack” are “Northern Line” by the Old 97’s, an acoustic version of “Everything’s Ruined” by Fountains of Wayne, and Laura Cantrell’s cover of John Prine’s “Sam Stone,” a song about a veteran who returns home with a fatal heroine addiction. “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose,” she sings in her girlish twang. “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.”

But the last two songs of “Soundtrack” are, far and away, its best. Tom Waits’ “Day After Tomorrow,” an achingly beautiful meditation on soldiering, ranks among his most gorgeous ballads. Singing from the point of view of a soldier in battle on his 21st birthday, Waits’ growls softly over only a sparingly strummed electric guitar. It is a sad, sad fact of our times that so many more people listen to Bill O’Reilly than Tom Waits.

The last song on the CD is Elliott Smith’s “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” a heartbreaking title of staggering genius. The tune combines the loneliness of 1997’s “Either/Or” with the Beatles-esque instrumentation of 2000’s “Figure 8.” Despite the gloom of the opening line, “I’m floating in a black balloon” (which, in a different version of the song, was followed by the ominous line “I must make it through the afternoon”) it is a pure joy to hear Elliott Smith singing again.

“Future Soundtrack for America” is a good compilation for what is to some a good cause. Perhaps best of all, almost of all of its tracks are either new or previously-unreleased (live, acoustic, or remixed) versions of songs. Of course, one’s sympathy for and ACT will color one’s enjoyment of the compilation. No Christian conservative, after all, would sing along to Ben Kweller’s “Jerry Falwell Destroyed the Earth,” though it would be fun to hear him try.

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