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

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)