The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered
I first encountered the music of legendary Texas songwriter and former AstroWorld employee Daniel Johnston in 1985, when he appeared out of the blue on the Austin episode of MTV's old Cutting Edge show. He was a skinny, unsigned, palpably nervous kid, pummeling an acoustic guitar with far more force than skill and singing one of the most heartfelt and hilarious lyrics I've ever heard ("the wildest summer that I ever knew / I got a flat tire down memory lane") in a voice so high, nasal and quavering that it made For the Turnstiles-era Neil Young sound like Mandy Patinkin. In the decades since then, I've witnessed a wide variety of reactions to Johnston's recorded music (much of it captured on a cheap boom box and released as-is), encompassing everything from the threat of physical violence lest I fail to turn it off, to one roommate of mine, a Chicago stripper who, shortly after her first exposure, gave up the habit of blasting techno in her bedroom all night long and started blasting Johnston all night long.
While the general public's reaction to his music has always been, well, mixed, it seems that huge numbers of musicians and songwriters find themselves in thunderstruck awe of Johnston's Beatlesque melodies, wily naïveté and pure, raw songcraft. Now 18 major artists have come together to put their spin on favorite Johnston songs, mostly in an effort to showcase the strengths of the compositions and make his rough-hewn diamonds accessible to a wider audience. As with all undertakings of this kind, the results are a mixed bag, although the material here is so strong that nothing falls entirely flat.
Starlight Mints deserve special credit for creating an entire lush arrangement around the a cappella snippet that was the original "Dead Lover's Twisted Heart," while Beck earns demerits for altering the original syntax of "True Love Will Find You in the End" in an otherwise lovely rendition. The always perverse Calvin Johnson's "Sorry Entertainer" is actually more minimal (if better recorded) than Johnston's version, and none other than Tom Waits gets major props for going so over the top with his triple-tracked "vocal percussion" on "King Kong" that he makes Johnston sound like Patinkin. Other highlights come from mainstays and young Turks ranging from Vic Chesnutt, Gordon Gano and the Flaming Lips to Death Cab for Cutie, Bright Eyes and TV on the Radio. There's also a second CD containing all of Johnston's originals in the same running order, providing either a special added bonus or the best reason to buy the thing in the first place, depending on where you stand on the man. -- Scott Faingold
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