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Various Artists – The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered, Covered

Although it isn’t coherent in the slightest bit and some of the tracks are pure trash, there is simply too much talent, creativity, and effort on The Late Great Daniel Johnston to dismiss it entirely.

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Its tough reviewing tribute albums, let me tell you, almost as tough as it is to make them. It is a conundrum- who are these albums designed for? Are they for fans of the individual bands, who inevitably disappoint nearly everyone by either recording [A:] an ironic version of the track (“Holy shit! The Strokes covered “Clampdown” by The Clash. Dude, they suck”) [B:] a totally heartfelt tribute where, basically, they’re so in awe that they’re covering the work of someone they love so much they turn into your local bar’s tribute band (“Holy shit! The Strokes covered “A Salty Salute” by Guided By Voices. Dude, they suck”) or [C:] a totally unrecognizable version of the song where the lyrics are the only identifiable characteristic (sorry, the Strokes have only covered two songs). Or are they for fans of the artist being covered, who will inevitably prefer the originals to the newer versions?

It’s really tough for the bands, not to mention the album producer who has to somehow find coherency between what could be 15 very different songs going in 15 different directions. A reviewer tends to feel sympathy for all involved in this delicate situation in the same way parents have to pretend to love their kid’s macaroni covered artwork- you know their heart and souls are in the things and they did the best with what they were given, but you’re secretly left waiting for them to turn away so you can chuck it out the window.

Wait! Hold that note! I take it back! Although it isn’t coherent in the slightest bit and some of the tracks are pure trash, there is simply too much talent, creativity, and effort on The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered, Covered to dismiss it entirely. Even ignoring the good but not great tribute disc, this album provides a great rationale for its own existence in Disc 2, which contains the original performances of the covered songs by Johnston himself. Even if you don’t like the covers, this album serves as a great introduction for the initiated into Johnston’s massive back catalog.

Daniel Johnston always was a true outsider- he was loved by mainstream artists from Pearl Jam to REM, and yet never compromised his simple, sloppy lo-fi sound for any semblance of mainstream success. His lyrics range from the outrageously cliché and hammy to really genuine love songs, the kind a child genius going through puberty might concoct. After looking over the diverse and impressive list of artists on Discovered, Covered, you can see exactly how widespread Johnston’s influence is. The album starts off with a stumble; I think the only way Johnston would’ve wanted it to. Teenage Fanclub run through a boring, near-identical cover of “My Life is Starting Over Again” with Jad Fair providing warbly, Memphis influenced vocals. Although the track is one of the weakest on the album and a horrible choice for opener, it is almost redeemed by Fair’s delivery of the line “I guess it’s better than suicide,” which comes off with such uncertainty you have to wonder whether he means it at all. Clem Snide, who seem to get more orchestral with each passing release turn what is without a doubt the weakest of the original selected tracks lyrically and musically, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievience” into a sugar coated symphonic pop song that wouldn’t sound out of place on The Ghost of Fashion. Less successful are TV on the Radio, who take one of the biggest risks on the album, covering the two note “Walking the Cow” but manage to turn the song into even more of a migraine inducing mess than its original counterpart. 

The two best tracks, however, are those by Death Cab For Cutie and Beck, who manage to take their respective covers in unique and unimaginable directions. Death Cab venture back into the experimentation they pursued on the Stability EP with their cover of “Dream Scream,” which has drummer Jason McGerr playing a beat so magnificently chaotic, shambling, and out of step that it sounds like its just come stumbling home after a night of heavy drinking while the rest of the band purposefully struggles to keep up. The track is musically and emotionally unstable, not normally what the calculated precise Death Cab normally produces. Beck takes the alternate route, stripping “True Love Will Find You in the End” down to a guitar and harmonica, and letting his resigned, sincere delivery carry the song.

Of course, I cannot recommend this album to fans of the bands that are performing the covers, because, for the most part, their own personalities take the back seat and instead push Johnston’s words and music up front. However, if you consider yourself a fan of fringe-pop, or have always wanted to learn more about Johnston without navigating his massive back catalog, then by all means pick up Discovered, Covered. It’s not always an easy listen, but it a near across the board rewarding one.

(Gammon Records)

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Good Riddance – Thoughts and Prayers

The fire still burns brightly for Good Riddance

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It would seem that the current US administration has proven to be fertile fields for political punks. If there is a positive to have come out of the past few years, it is in the form of angry punk rock records. The aptly titled Thoughts and Prayers, the new record by Good Riddance, could very well be the best of them. For many like myself, Good Riddance was the gateway to a world of punk rock socio-political commentary; wrapped in aggressive, melodic hardcore that opened your mind as much as it punched a hole in the wall. 1996’s A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and the really terrific 1998 record Ballads from the Revolution, were eye-opening propositions for a wide-eyed kid. Good Riddance resonated because their songs were hard-hitting commentary that sounded like broken-hearted punk rock songs. They sang intelligently about inequality, human despair, and the sometimes broken system in which we live in. And when their broken-hearted punk rock songs weren’t about society and politics, they were broken-hearted punk rock songs about broken hearts (don’t think there have been love songs as good in the genre as “Jeannie” and “Not With Him”).

Four years since their comeback record, Peace In Our Time, we get the much more furious Thoughts and Prayers. 12 songs of trademark breakneck melodic hardcore that talks about the divisive current political climate without going as far as saying things like “Trump sucks”. But that’s never been the Good Riddance way. Vocalist and chief lyricist Russ Rankin has always found a way to express his anger and disappointment with poise and intelligence- sounding more like a well-read poet than a man yelling on a street corner.

In the track “Don’t Have Time”, he sings about the futility of repeating history to trumpet nationalism; “And those same old fears arise / With eyes too drawn to counteract / The ghost in you comes rushing back / Too caustic to subside / Just what have we done? / We killed a mother’s only son / Just to remain at number one“. And lyrically, much of takes a similar route of well-written stanzas that question a lot of what is going on in the world at the present time. Songs like the opening “Edmund Pettus Bridge” (let’s hope everyone knows the significance of this landmark), replete with Michael Douglas Wall Street sound byte, sings of social inequality but does it with a trace of hope. While songs like “The Great Divide” are an example of melodic hardcore’s finest moments; unrelenting sonic pummeling that is as melodic as it is potent. “Wish You Well” takes cues from Good Riddance’s “softer” tones of catchy choruses and mid-tempo verses; akin to the track “Saccharine” (from 2003’s Bound by Ties of Blood and Affection). Perhaps the best thing about the 12 songs here is that they are all very succinct, potent, with rarely a moment of filler. The album is consistently good, and while it rarely deviates from the Good Riddance sound, it never lacks in the fire and fury we’ve come to expect.

The album itself SOUNDS fantastic, credit again to Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore at The Blasting Room for their production. The guitars rip at the right levels while the percussion work hits just right. The mixing levels are as close to perfect as you can get without any one element dominating over another- a constant the band have found since 1999’s Operation Phoenix (no surprise, the first of their albums to have been produced at the Blasting Room).

The appeal of Good Riddance has always been two-fold. Firstly, their music has shown steadfast quality, and the albums have found longevity due to the way Rankin and company write their songs. With lyrics referring to and talking about a multitude of humanist issues without having to directly reference them, they remain political, timely, writing music as urgent as it was through the 90s as it is today. That may be a sad indictment of society itself, but it doesn’t take away from their effectiveness and influence. Rankin himself has said that their music may not have changed the world per se, they continue to open eyes and minds. This writer can attest to the latter- and the importance of that can’t be underlined enough. Their early discography spoke to my generation about life, self, and the interconnected reality of the world we live- no matter how hard to try not to believe it. Thoughts and Prayers is a furious, timely, and potent slab of hard-hitting melodic hardcore and shows that the fire clearly still burns as passionately for Good Riddance as it did all those years ago. And perhaps it’ll be what A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and Ballads From the Revolution was to me for a whole new generation.

(Fat Wreck Chords)

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Hatriot – From Days Unto Darkness

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities

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When it comes to Bay Area thrash metal, there are two bands that sit atop the mountain forever entwined to its history; Metallica and Exodus. Both bands linked together by Kirk Hammett, both bands crucial to the Bay Area’s most destructive form of music. Exodus may not have their name in lights as Metallica does, but Exodus’ influence cannot be mistaken- and many point to them as being the one true progenitor of Bay Area thrash. Hatriot, a band that was started by Exodus vocalist Steve Souza in 2011, are a real chip off the ol’ block. Surprisingly, it isn’t just musically that Hatriot follows suit from Exodus, its a family thing too. While Steve Souza left Hatriot in 2015, his sons Nick and Cody continue on percussions and guitars with the latter taking on vocal duties once the older Souza returned to Exodus.

Hatriot does more than just follow on the Exodus path; they’ve loudly carved their own slice of the thrash pie. Led by Kosta Varvatakis shredding guitar work and Cody Souza’s blistering (sometimes ominous) vocal work, Hatriot may have found their Fabulous Disaster, ironically, also three albums in.

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities; machine gun percussion work (I’m a sucker for some great double bass drums), shredding guitars, soaring solos, and vocals that does the growling well, and the screaming even better. Tracks like “Organic Remains” and the blistering “Carnival of Execution” showcase the band’s ability to craft songs that are equal parts urgency and solid musicianship. Thematically, From Days Unto Darkness covers the usual thrash metal spread; the end times, death, destruction, and humanity’s failing graces- all done with equal breakneck, ear piercing destruction sonically. “World, Flesh & Devil” is perhaps the album’s best outing- a raging beast of a song, that if carnage could be written in music form, this is it incarnate. At 4:26, it is one of the shorter tracks of the release, but much of the album features in at the 6-7 minute mark- a trademark of thrash metal’s desire to not only showcase talent but to do it over extended periods.

What the album lacks perhaps is that one magnum opus of a track. Sure, it’s not easy for any band to write “Master of Puppets”, but From Days Unto Darkness rarely takes a breather. It’s mostly positive, but while Master had at times, slow interludes to let you catch your breath, Hatriot takes absolutely no prisoners- staying true to their thrash metal heritage. If you’re not quite up for it, this album will hammer you into a stupor.

The halcyon days of Bay Area thrash metal may be long resigned to nostalgic documentaries, but Hatriot are not interested in just being a throwback to their roots. From Days Unto Darkness is not for the weak and if this is the sign that thrash metal is alive and kicking, then the future and present are in damn good hands.

(Massacre Records)

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