Compared with their chart-topping, multiplatinum movie siblings, TV soundtrack albums get no respect. And frankly, they haven’t earned it yet. The first Miami Vice compilation (1985), while not quite enough to knock Don Johnson’s socks back on, did capture a moment in pop when big bucks were there for the taking and older rock veterans (Tina Turner, Phil Collins) were happy to synthesize themselves up and go for it.
Alas, the tube albums that have been compiled since have been even more disposable than most TV theme songs. The China Beach record wallowed in recycled Motown oldies, and the two Beverly Hills, 90210 collections were so out of step with teenagers’ tastes that they included the likes of Michael McDonald. The Baywatch album (1993) subjected us to singing cast members; Melrose Place: The Music gave us a hooky Aimee Mann song, ”That’s Just What You Are,” but was otherwise a nondescript collection of alterna-rock leftovers.
Beyond weak songs or singing actors, the problem with most TV discs is simple. At its best, a good movie soundtrack conjures memories of a particular scene or a certain mood in the film itself; it’s of a piece with what’s on the big screen. Since songs used on TV series are strewn about over dozens of episodes, such associations are much harder to make. The resulting albums are so random they seem cobbled together by that obnoxious monkey on Friends.
Which, naturally, brings us to Friends (Reprise) the album. Perky musical accompaniment would seem a natural for a series whose characters are basically stand-up comics, dispensing glib one-liners about their sex lives and McJob opportunities — it’s like The Little Chill, but without the suicidal friend. For all their talk, though, this group of friends-who-probably-wouldn’t- be-friends-in-real-life seems pretty chaste and clean living. So what better music than rock’s New Sincerity movement, namely Toad the Wet Sprocket and Hootie & the Blowfish? The latter’s ”I Go Blind” is a smidgen meatier than songs on their debut but still suffers from an all-consuming banality (”Hold me, hold me, because I wanna get higher and higher”). Naturally, the album also includes the Rembrandts’ lean-on-me hit jingle, in both full-length and mercifully short versions.
An album crammed with ditties such as these would have been pretty dull, but at least it would have been a good representation of the new generation of Gen X yuppie rock. Instead, like most TV soundtracks, Friends is another missed opportunity. Much of it sounds like a thirtysomething’s idea of what hip twentysomethings should be listening to — R.E.M., the Pretenders, k.d. lang, and Paul Westerberg, all college-radio heroes of a decade ago. None are essential: The Pretenders, for instance, offer a remake of ”Angel of the Morning” that’s stately but adds little to the original. ”Sexuality,” lang’s mildly steamy contribution, continues in the full-bodied cabaret-pop mode of her last record, Ingenue, but lang fans may want to hold out for her upcoming album, on which the song will also appear. Between tracks, we’re subjected to dialogue excerpts (and grating audience guffaws) from the show, which wear out their welcome even faster than that Rembrandts tune.
Friends does contain at least two must-hears. Lou Reed’s ”You’ll Know You Were Loved” finds the Grim Rocker offering comforting words of advice over his bounciest, most relaxed melody in years. And Joni Mitchell’s quarter-century-old ”Big Yellow Taxi” is turned into, of all things, a trip-hop number, with its original backing track replaced by a rap drumbeat. It sounds awful in concept, but once your ears adjust, it’s a fascinating overhaul. Still, which is more unlikely — the presence of Reed and Mitchell on a Friends soundtrack, or any of the Friends characters actually caring about two over-50 rock stars? B-