These days, not only can you watch your favorite TV series, you can get under the headphones with it, too. Thanks to the joys of cross-marketing, record companies have been peddling companion albums for such shows as Friends and New York Undercover. The ideal soundtrack for the cult sci-fi hit The X-Files would probably be a collection of ambient techno music — those spacey electronic bleeps that are the unidentified flying objects of pop. Instead, for Songs in the Key of X: Music From and Inspired by the X-Files, executive producers David Was, late of the funk novelty act Was (Not Was), and Chris Carter (the brains behind the series) have called in a collection of X-Files-inspired songs from an appropriately mysterious mix of rock luminaries and lightweights, most of whom are devotees of the series. The result — part rock-hipster anthology, part Dr. Demento album for music eggheads — is easily the most ambitious record ever assembled for a TV soundtrack.
Rather than evoke particular episodes, Was and Carter aim to re-create the show’s creepy-crawly ambiance in assorted ways. There are quirky odes to extraterrestrials, like Soul Coughing’s clanking ”Unmarked Helicopters,” the Foo Fighters’ throbbing remake of Gary Numan’s ”Down in the Park,” and the Meat Puppets’ slice of slacker boogie, ”Unexplained.” (The preponderance of alternative types makes sense: The popularity of antihero outsiders Scully and Mulder is the small-screen equivalent of alterna-rock’s newfound acceptance in pop culture.) Sheryl Crow’s ”On the Outside” feels as hushed as one of the show’s spookier scenes, and its lyrics give voice to the agents’ uneasiness about stumbling upon yet another government cover-up. The series’ whistling-in-the-dark theme song is included, of course, but in two versions: the original by Mark Snow and an anemic semi-hip-hop remake by P.M. Dawn that’s memorable only for its eerie, disembodied voices.
Like the show itself, Songs in the Key of X occasionally falls victim to its own pretensions. The album is dragged down by ponderous contributions from windbags like Nick Cave (”Red Right Hand”) and Elvis Costello (”My Dark Life,” an elliptical electronic art song that overstays its six minutes). Sticking out like sore, black-leathered thumbs are a cartoonish metal track by Danzig (”Deep”) and a collaboration between gore-rock legend Alice Cooper and his less tuneful successor, White Zombie’s Rob Zombie (”Hand of Death [Burn Baby Burn]”). For an album that relies on low-key, atmospheric willies, both are just too heavy-handed.
What remains is an oddball lot, from a surf-rock-in-space track by Frank Black to an oldie by R&B ghoul Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. William S. Burroughs, the shriveled Beat author who could easily score an X-Files cameo as a UFO true believer, delivers a reading of the lyric to R.E.M.’s ”Star Me Kitten” over the song’s original music track. Its inclusion makes no sense (neither its music nor its lyrics have sci-fi elements), but at the very least, Burroughs’ hilariously dry interpretation (”Just f — k me, kitten/You are wild!”) makes the lyrics entirely comprehensible for the first time.
If any dramatic television series has a psychic connection with rock & roll, it’s The X-Files. The show’s hallmarks — the questioning of authority, skepticism toward all things normal, series star David Duchovny’s halfway-spiky haircut — are as much a part of rock culture as concert T-shirts. Apropos of its source, Songs in the Key of X is genuinely warped and can catch you off guard. Its main flaw is that its bone-chilling highlights can’t compare to the series itself. Who needs White Zombie’s grotesque sonic assault when the show offers mutant cockroaches in the flesh — literally — and burn victims resembling human headcheese? X-Files the series has a musical identity all its own: It’s heavy metal for the eyes.