Today’s pop-and-rap-driven soundtrack albums are curious affairs, ephemeral souvenirs that feel simultaneously benign and pernicious. Piggybacking on the popularity of the movies they’re linked to, often as not they serve up songs only theoretically related to the film. Whether purveying a scattershot sampling of new, ostensibly hip music or pushing our nostalgia buttons by plundering pop’s past, these ever-proliferating collections owe their existence to the profitable alliance between Hollywood and the music industry. And the phenomenon shows no signs of abating (at this writing, film soundtracks account for fully eight percent of Billboard‘s Top 200 pop chart).
Still, every so often a worthy soundtrack — one that feels like a cohesive work of art — slips through the cracks. One such example is High Fidelity, which features key music from the film version of the Nick Hornby novel. Since pop is practically a character unto itself in both the movie and the book, the album has a built-in resonance, especially for those who, like Fidelity‘s pop-obsessed protagonist, Rob, view songs as literal friends. And, like one of the mix tapes Rob is fond of making for people he likes, it’s a thoughtful, if idiosyncratic, collection.
Kicking off with the invigorating one-two jolt of the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage-psych classic ”You’re Gonna Miss Me” and the Kinks’ forgotten R&B raver ”Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy,” the album hopscotches among tunes from four decades, including tracks from Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Love, the Velvet Underground, Royal Trux, and the Beta Band. Record-collector dweebs will appreciate the perverse charm of the selections, which are seldom obvious: The two late-period VU tunes, ”Oh! Sweet Nuthin”’ and ”Who Loves the Sun,” are sung by Velvet-come-lately Doug Yule, not Lou Reed; Dylan’s depressive ”Most of the Time” was plucked from the great man’s transitional Oh Mercy collection; Love’s ”Always See Your Face” is an obscurity recorded after the band’s creative peak. In this context, the two songs that non-record-collector dweebs might recognize — Stevie Wonder’s ”I Believe (When I Fall in Love)” and actor-singer Jack Black’s take on Marvin Gaye’s ”Let’s Get It On” — might seem merely ironic. Yet their presence will make perfect sense to those who’ve seen the film — which, despite its change of venue from London to Chicago, is remarkably faithful to the book. Overall, the High Fidelity soundtrack succeeds because it hews to the pre-CD era spirit of Hornby’s story, and includes music from — not ”inspired by” — the movie. One complaint: The omission of Stiff Little Fingers’ ”Suspect Device,” which leaps out at you in the film, is positively criminal.
Speaking of felonious behavior, perhaps the only thing more hair-raising than the lurid torture/murder scenes in Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho is its antihero Patrick Bateman’s taste in music (his faves: Huey Lewis & the News, Phil Collins, Genesis, and Whitney Houston). Oddly, the American Psycho soundtrack contains none of those artists’ songs except for Lewis’ ”Hip to Be Square,” which plays an integral role in the movie. Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) wisely departs from the book by keeping most of the bloodletting off screen, but plays up Bateman’s risible penchant for spouting amateur rock criticism as a prelude to his killing sprees (he reckons Lewis possesses ”a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor” than Elvis Costello).
Harron has said that she thought sprightly pop tunes would provide the best framework for Bateman’s depravity, and there are a handful of uptempo groovers here for the closet serial killer inside us all: Information Society’s ”What’s on Your Mind (Pure Energy),” Tom Tom Club’s ”Who Feelin’ It,” Dope’s beefy cover of Dead or Alive’s ”You Spin Me Round.” There is also some classic club music (M/A/R/R/S’ great ”Pump Up the Volume,” Erik B. & Rakim’s ”Paid in Full”). But one wonders what the mainstream-pop-loving Bateman would make of the inclusion of arty fare like the Cure’s ”Watching Me Fall” or David Bowie’s ”Something in the Air”? (He dismisses, after all, Lewis & the News’ early albums as ”too new wave.”) At its best, the Psycho soundtrack succeeds in recapturing the shiny vapidity of ’80s pop and dance hits — if you’re looking for an overview of the decade when synths, drum machines, and crude samples ruled, this isn’t bad. Yet as an album with a clearly definable aesthetic identity, it feels as disjointed as Bateman himself, alternately manic and depressing. Which, come to think of it, may be just what its compilers were aiming for. Fidelity: A- Psycho: C+