Normally, when you're dealing with a concept or companion album inspired by a big blockbuster film, you're in for a bad time. A label gets the rights, throws a bunch of barely connected songs together, adds in the one or two pop songs actually written for the film, and slaps a big price tag on it to lure in gullible fans. This is not the case with The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond. Producer T Bone Burnett has pulled together a collection of artists actually writing music inspired by The Hunger Games.
It's not hard to imagine where the inspiration comes from. The protagonist is from a district filled with folk songs in what was once called the Appalachian Mountains. Author Suzanne Collins includes music as a driving force in the trilogy. Lullabies, kids songs, working songs, and traditional folk ballads pop up again and again, taking on new meaning as the citizens of Panem begin to rise up against their government.
Songs from District 12 and Beyond features 16 brand new songs written about The Hunger Games. Of course there are country/folk artists on the recording. Taylor Swift, The Civil Wars, and Miranda Lambert--among others--bring an authentic voice to the album.
Swift especially impresses with two songs from the perspective of Katniss. "Eyes Open" is about the shift in mindset from being an innocent child hunting in the woods to being the center of a ghastly game that everyone is required to watch on TV. It's a solid pop/country song that shows off what Taylor Swift can do when she's not obsessed with her own life.
"Safe & Sound" is the stand out track on the album, acting as a beautiful folk lullaby inspired by the destruction of the games. Katniss watches people escape the games through death. Why not tuck them in with a sad lullaby? If Swift could reach this level of honesty on her own albums, she would guarantee herself a career as a superstar musician for as long as she wanted it.
What becomes interesting is the variety of artists that manage to fit into a folk mold without abandoning their own style. I would never imagine Arcade Fire pulling off anything particularly traditional, but "Abraham's Daughter" sets just the right tech-influenced folk tone at the top of the album. The Hunger Games is, after all, a dystopian novel turned film. Adam Levine's voice comfortably slips into a folk tone for the Glen Hansard penned "Come Away to the Water." Even Kid Cudi manages to find a balance between his rap aesthetic and some more traditional call and response-styled folk music.
What amazes me about Songs from District 12 and Beyond is the level of straight folk allowed on the album. Many of the tracks shift to an alternative mode, but the folk foundation is there. We're dealing with a YA-targeted series taking a huge risk from a commercial perspective. Folk doesn't sell very well.
Here, because the style fits the story being told, T Bone Burnett has pulled together a competent and modern collection of folk-colored songs that--stripped down--wouldn't be out of place in an acoustic concert. It's a tricky balancing act that mostly comes together. There's enough variety to please everyone, but the album is a bit too wide-reaching to fully come together beyond the theme of "inspired by The Hunger Games."
Thoughts? Love to hear them.