David Browne
January 12, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST


MADONNA’S trend-setting days are behind her, but there is one vogue we can lay on her increasingly broad shoulders. Her 1990 album I’m Breathless was subtitled ”Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy,” since some of its songs were nowhere to be heard in the film. Directors and soundtrack compilers seem to be picking up on this concept: Only 5 of the 14 songs on the Batman Forever album, for instance, were heard on screen. So, bandwagon jumpers that we are, this review is subtitled ”Thoughts inspired by the soundtracks of DEAD MAN WALKING (Columbia) and THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD (A&M).”

Tim Robbins must throw great parties, judging from the all-stars who flocked to contribute tailor-made songs to his prison drama Dead Man Walking: Eddie Vedder, Bruce Springsteen, Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others. Yet only 4 of its 12 songs are in the film. Wonder if those who were left out are still his friends.

Steve Earle has become a better Bruce Springsteen than Bruce himself. His contribution to Dead Man, ”Ellis Unit One,” is narrated by a numbed death-row prison guard, and Earle’s parched delivery and eye for detail are more vivid than Springsteen’s title song, which continues the resigned, bone-dry ambiance of The Ghost of Tom Joad.

On his recent albums, Lyle Lovett has grown arch and cutesy, but ”Promises,” on Dead Man, breaks that pattern. Over an arrangement as tight-lipped and gaunt as he is, Lovett seethes about romantic betrayal, making for his most direct, compelling song in years. Not to be too glib, but perhaps he should fall into bad marriages with shaky actresses more often.

Every soundtrack now has its old-school institution. On Dead Man, Johnny Cash’s ”In Your Mind” jovially harks back to his rockabilly-bop days. On Denver, Dean Martin’s 1964 oldie ”You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” adds appropriate cocktail-hipster sleaze to the album’s pool-hall rock and blues. Dead Man takes hero worship one step further with Vedder’s two hypnotic duets with Pakistani superstar Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (see box, right). The similarities between Khan’s anguished wail and Vedder’s anguished groan are as undeniable as the sales charge on a Ticketmaster ticket.

For all his girth, Blues Traveler’s John Popper has squeezed onto plenty of records lately: His band has been featured on soundtracks (White Man’s Burden) and tribute albums to John Lennon and marijuana. They pop up yet again on the faux-Tarantino flick Denver with a proficient cover of Bob Seger’s ”Get Out of Denver.” Only Hootie & the Blowfish were more ubiquitous in the past year

Tom Waits should score full-time. The junkyard-dog quality of ”Walk Away” (Dead Man) and ”Jockey Full of Bourbon” (Denver) are perfect scene setters. But that doesn’t make his voice — which sounds more than ever like Mr. Hyde in a choke hold — any more listenable.

Pop soundtrack albums — serious or just serious fun? The best, from Saturday Night Fever through Pulp Fiction, capture an era or style of music and make for a rollicking jukebox ride. On that basis, Denver is mostly a success, thanks to Freedy Johnston’s hearty ”On the Way Out,” Morphine’s gas-guzzling ”Mile High,” and various energizing blues covers and oldies. The adult rock of Dead Man is a more somber trip, but, if you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with striking performances by Earle, Vedder, etc.

”If the good Lord made anything else better, He gotta have kept it for himself!” sings Buddy Guy on Denver’s ”She’s a Superstar.” Blues songs still have the best lyrics.

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