"Songs in the Key of X" Album review by Matt Allair
Page Editor: XScribe
Original release date: March, 26th, 1996
Executive Producers: David Was, Chris Carter
Producers: Steve Fisk, Soul Coughing, Bill Bottrell, Barrett Jones, Foo Fighters, James Grauerholz, Tony Cohen, Bad Seeds, Filter, Nick Vincent, Curt Kirkwood, Glenn Danzig, Bob Irwin, Brian Eno, Elvis Costello, Rob Zombie, Terry Dale, Charlie Clauser, P.M. Dawn
To begin with, this isn't a typical review, being that most reviews are built on the first impression of a new release, and this title is, at present, fourteen years old. There is a kind of multiple personality, fragmented aspect to this collection, and yet the pairing of 90s alternative rock and pop with the television show, The X-Files, considering it was a cultural phenomenon at the time, was a rather apt pairing. Both genre's captured the zeitgeist of the first half of the decade, a great deal of alternative rock, as a genre, had a fragmented quality. It used a fractal prism to examine society's conventional assumptions. Both genres share an anxiety about society, a feeling that while everything seemed fine on the surface, there was something unsettling or not quite right. This aspect fit in with the series' sensibilities: a mistrust of the establishment and convention, as well as a show that embraced, if not celebrated, the outsider. This album was touted at the time as a collection of songs intended to capture the feel of the show.
The collection jumps from purely experimental tracks, to ambient music, to various forms of alternative, hard rock, with a touch of metal, to acoustic, and more introspective songs, while also diverging into 50s rock and roll, and closing with hip hop and dance mixes. The one common theme that ties all of this music together can be found on the lyrics.
It becomes difficult to access how much of this collection was specifically conceived for the album, and how much of this material was unreleased material by the artists who contributed. At the time Chris Carter had commented that the songs from the album would appear at some point in the show, and only a small percentage did so. Aside from the Mark Snow theme, the three other tracks that were used on the album made appearances in certain episodes. Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" was memorably used in "Ascension," The Screamin' Jay Hawkins track, "Frenzy," was used in "Humbug," and within a year after the release of this album, Soul Coughing's "Unmarked Helicopters" would appear in the episode "Max." Yet it becomes difficult to discern if these songs ‘inspired by The X-Files' were songs that inspired the creative team at Ten-Thirteen, or if the musicians were inspired by the show.
Producer David Was helpfully mentioned in his notes that musicians submitted their contributions as fans of The X-Files. The first cut featured is the hidden track, Nick Cave's "Dread The Passage of Jesus, For He Will Not Return," or its alternate title: "Time Jesum Transeumtum Et Non Rivertentum," a rather astonishing tone poem that would have fit in well with many X-Files or Millennium episodes. The second cut is a re-imaging of The X-Files theme by Nick Cave and The Dirty Three, that is dark in tone--an experimental freak out. One could liken it to the tone of the episode, "Home." It needs to be said that Mark Snow's theme which opens the album, is not only an interesting motif, but a well constructed work. The Foo Fighter's cover of Gary Numan's "Down by the Park," according to recent information, was revealed to have been recorded during rehearsals for what would become their seminal album, "The Colour and The Shape." Sheryl Crow's "On The Outside" is atypical of her usual lighter material--quiet, pensive, and one of the stronger cuts in the collection.
The track with R.E.M. and William S. Burroughs, "Star Me Kitten," might have been specifically developed for the album with Burroughs adding a vocal over the band- backing track. One could wonder, and to what degree, did the historical significance of various artists play into the selection process? William S. Burroughs is a prime example of the historical significance I speak of. Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch, and an important avant-garde existentialist, could be regarded as the ultimate outsider. One of the other unique collaborations is the track by Elvis Costello and Brian Eno. To those familiar with the Bowie / Eno collaborations of the 70s, they might find "My Dark Hour" of interest. Others might find it an acquired taste. With its mix of ambient keyboards, electronic percussion, some haunting guitar by Costello, as well as a Tabla, it has been regarded by some Costello enthusiasts as one of his stronger tracks.
This issue of historical significance can be cited in the selection of "Frenzy" in the episode, "Humbug." Musician Screamin' Jay Hawkins was a blues and early rock and roll singer who built up brief fame with several novelty songs. His stage presentation included stepping out of a coffin and the use of Voodoo props. "Frenzy" features some lively guitar work. In a like-minded sense, this historical significance could apply to Frank Black, in addition to the fact that his name would be used for Chris Carter's impending Fox TV series, Millennium. Under the name Black Francis, as the founder of the band, The Pixies in the 80s, they laid a significant foundation for the brand of alternative rock that would follow. Again this sense of historical significance comes into play with the pairing of Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper. Rob Zombie's involvement, in retrospect isn't surprising, considering his enthusiasm for horror, and his eventual duel career as a feature film director. Working with Alice Cooper, the grandfather of horror based Grand Guignol Rock, they made a fitting pairing in theory, yet the clichés of the track, "Hands of Death (Burn, Baby, Burn)" cause it to feel out of place. Again, historical significance could play in the involvement of Glenn Danzig, the founder of The Misfits, another band that played with ‘B' movie horror iconic imagery. Danzig's track, "Deep," assembled around electronic percussion and a rolling bass line, that further builds with proto metal guitars and drums, even manages to quote, in a feedback-drenched guitar, from the Gustav Holst "Mars: The Bringer of War" theme. It is easy to see how this track could have been used on a episode.
The Meat Puppet's "Unexplained" is probably the most accessible track, and the closest to a grunge anthem to be found here. The inclusion of the Filter track, "Thanks, Bro," is interesting on several levels. The piece is an acoustic track that builds in a wash of backwards guitars and feedback that deals with betrayal. A number of years later, Filter member Richard Patrick's brother, Robert, would play a vital role in the series. The primary problem with the album is the fact that it loses steam towards the end; after "Hands of Death," the two remaining tracks from P.M. Dawn come across as too mannered. While "If You Never Say Goodbye" opens with a promising guitar line, and while the heavy rock arrangement is commendable, and even though the lyrics are dark and fatalistic, (Chris Carter is credited as a co-writer), the track isn't very compelling. This problem is even more manifest with P.M. Dawn's arrangement of "The X-Files Theme," which again seems like a too-mannered read of Mark Snow's piece, especially in light of the compelling arrangement by Nick Cave of the The X-Files Theme at the beginning of the collection, and when you consider that within a few years, The Dust Brothers would deliver a more compelling arrangement in 1998 for the "Fight The Future" album. It is a disappointing close to the collection with some interesting, if mixed material.
The Chris Carter liner notes playfully jump from existentialism to some heartfelt recollections of childhood, and the role of music in his life. There is this frequent balancing act between intellectualism and popularism; this cerebral element drives the selection and presentation of the album, and it is a credit to the album producers to have offered up something challenging to the listener.
The X-Files always credited its fans with intelligence, and that is made evident in this collection.
CD album duration: 01:12:51
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