What’s the appropriate soundtrack for kids killing kids? That’s one of many tough questions that Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett had to answer while overseeing this set of songs inspired by the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel about tweens and teens forced to fight to the death. Fans of the book might imagine its bow-hunting heroine, Katniss Everdeen, slinging arrows to the strains of something decidedly punk-rock. Personally, I’d like to think of her blasting Bikini Kill’s ”Rebel Girl” while she takes out Cato, Clove, Glimmer, and anyone else who underestimates her talent for ripping out tender teenage hearts and entrails. But what puts Burnett in the mood for some good old-fashioned child sacrificing, apparently, is…folk. Or rather, as Taylor Swift recently told EW, ”Appalachian music 300 years from now — what Americana and bluegrass music would sound like in the future.” With everyone from Arcade Fire to Maroon 5 on The Hunger Games Soundtrack, that’s a tall order — though certainly Swift’s sweet lullaby ”Safe & Sound,” backed by breakout Nashville duo the Civil Wars, fits the ”Americana” part. When she sings to an unlucky fighter, ”Just close your eyes/You’ll be alright,” she sounds like she’s finally broken out of fairy-tale-princess territory to real adulthood. Elsewhere, the Decemberists’ furious ”One Engine” and Punch Brothers’ pretty ”Dark Days” carry on the mournful fingerpicking. They’re lovely songs, but all that semi-acoustic brooding makes you wonder if ”Appalachian music 300 years from now” is the same as it ever was.
Far more engaging are the artists who imagine they’ve seen Katniss’ future, and all they can say is ”Go back.” Haunted by gorgeously sad Southern-belle harmonies from Miranda Lambert and her fellow shotgun-toting Pistol Annies, ”Run Daddy Run” is deeply ominous, a song to sing when ”you hear the devil drawin’ near.” Best of all is Kid Cudi’s gothic rap-rock epic ”The Ruler and the Killer,” which feels every bit as dystopian as Collins’ book. With chest-pounding military drums and a menacing Big Brother refrain (”You don’t talk/You’ll say nothing, okay?”), it doesn’t sound anything like Burnett’s kinder, gentler vision for the soundtrack. And maybe that’s why it totally captures the spirit of the film: If there’s one thing that the warriors of District 12 hate just as much as the regular kids who love The Hunger Games, it’s respecting authority. B