September 23, 2004

Test Spin: Daniel Johnston

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For those of you fretting, Daniel Johnston is actually alive and kicking, as evidenced by the fact that the CD cover pictures him at his own gravesite. Seem a little too macabre for you? I thought so too, at first. But this compilation turns out to be an uplifting tribute to a man’s unsung career: a life that has affected the entire indie and alternative rock scene.

Johnston, who has influenced such great names as Kurt Cobain and Yo La Tengo, is a pioneer in lo-fi independent music. Since 1980, he has been releasing his “albums,” sometimes as lo-fi as a cassette tape made with a $30 mono recorder. With a bipolar disorder and an un-tuned guitar in hand, Johnston has released several albums, steadily growing into cult status. In a fundraising effort to help support Johnston, Gammon Records has compiled this double CD; one disc is a collection of 18 of his original recordings, and on the other, the same songs covered by indie rock’s best.

Your first inclination may be to listen to the polished recordings, but don’t. As recommended by the liner notes, play the originals first and you’ll gain a better understanding of Johnston. You can’t help but be affected after listening to Johnston’s sole ghostly voice in “Devil Town,” or his obviously labored breathing in “Dream Scream,” which belies how much he puts into every song. But not all his songs are doom and gloom — listen to “Go,” and if you can get around his twangy guitar, there are optimistic lines like, “If you think you’ve found something/ don’t let it go.” Towards the end you’ll find Johnston’s version of a love song, a narrative ode to King Kong and “his screaming woman.”

The covers CD serves as only icing on Johnston’s twisted cake. Collaborators include Beck, Tom Waits, Guster, Bright Eyes, and a host of others in appreciation to Johnston. Although a bit more embellished, several of the artists even try to emulate, but never copy, Johnston’s beleaguered voice and instrumentals. If the music weren’t enough, CD-ROM enhancements on the originals disc feature some of Johnston’s works of art and lyrics to his songs.

Archived article by Ed Kim
Red Leter Daze Contributor