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V/A - Discovered, Covered: The Late, Great Daniel Johnston

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Artist: V/A

Album: Discovered, Covered: The Late, Great Daniel Johnston

Label: Gammon

Review date: Nov. 17, 2004

Unlike most tribute records, this one comes complete with a second disc full of the originals, lending much-needed context. Not every Flaming Lips fan knows much about lithium-popping emotional invalid Daniel Johnston, and hardly any would care to wade through his vast, largely cassette-only back catalogue in toto. Even the overlappers get a new song called “Rock This Town”: “I love that marijuana / It makes me feel so high.” Daniel Johnston, common man.

Johnston’s music ain’t what any spin doctor would call “accessible.” He bangs on his instruments like a temperamental infant. His voice could belong to a nine-year-old girl or an incontinent grandma, but not to any indie-pop icon outside himself and Joanna Newsom. His melodies are solid; his lyrics are defiantly off-the-cuff. And those lyrics express damn-near-unbearable pain.

But listen to the tribute, and it’s easy to believe this untrained crank created himself a sublime subgenre.

Discovered, Covered is packed with college radio staples that top their dented, Beatles-derived hooks with childlike ache, even at their day gigs. Shut-in Violent Femmes hornball Gordon Gano? Asylum-lurking manchildren Eels? Visionary Sparklehorse bumpkin Mark Linkous? Onion-skinned Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst? Turns out they’re all Johnston fans. The smart money says they were Johnston fans before they rented their first practice spaces.

Most everyone here treats the source material with uncommon reverence. Even the most notoriously “quirky” hands on deck (Calvin Johnston, Jad Fair, T.V. On the Radio) follow the originals note-for-reeling-note, right down to Johnston’s vocal lilt and bungled pronunciations. Only serious fans will recognize Death Cab for Cutie, Clem Snide and Beck. Most forego their respective shticks in deference to their hero. That’s noble. Most don’t do anything exactly new with his songs. That goes both ways.

The clearest exception arrives near the album’s close. Vic Chesnutt retains none of Johnston’s affectations; he’s got his own, thanks, and how. Chesnutt does “Monkey In the Zoo,” turning what Johnston clearly meant as a mental patient’s wounded cry of Mad Pride, into a bitchslap of the people who can’t get past the wheelchair he’s ridden since age 12. Sometimes, the folks on Discovered, Covered choke on their respect for Johnston, but Chesnutt fits "Monkey" into his own style with that snap you hear whenever an old song finds a new home.

Linkous and Flaming Lip Wayne Coyne click just as well. They trade verses on the optimistic “Go,” and wrangle in both Sparklehorse’s wind-chimey melodic sense and the Lip’s reverberating overstatement.

Plus, M. Ward makes “Story of an Artist” so fucking somber it brings down the rain. “Story” is about Johnston’s refusal to “grow up,” but through Ward, the song pulls it off. Most of these people’s fans will perhaps become Johnston fans; a lot of long-haul Johnston fans will be within their rights to become Ward fans.

By Emerson Dameron

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