Featured CD Review: Daniel Johnston - Discovered Covered

By Celeste Meiffren
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, September 16, 2004

Daniel Johnston - Discovered Covered
9 out of 10 stars

Recording a cover is a dangerous business. Take, for example, Jimmy Eat World. Regardless of the quality of the band's music they are, sonically, a long way from the so-raw-it-bleeds lo-fi of Guided by Voices. Yet when Jimmy Eat World decided to cover Guided by Voices' excellent "Game of Pricks" for the recently released Future Soundtrack of America, the results were peculiarly unWorldly. The cover came off as imitation masquerading as homage. An approximation of Bob Pollard's faux-British shout replaced Jim Atkins' usually pretty tenor. The instrumental tracks were repeated verbatim from the original.

In other words, the sloppiness sounds forced and therefore, counterfeited.

That being said, sounding authentic while covering a song by Daniel Johnston is damn near impossible. And yet the 18 musicians and bands who attempt such a feat succeed almost without exception.

A quick rundown on the deal with Daniel Johnston: Johnston started making music in the early-1980s with nothing more than a boombox, a piano, a Beatles obsession and bi-polar disorder. Johnston did everything from hand-drawing his cover art to selling his tapes by hand on the streets of Austin, Texas. His music, some of which is documented on the second disc of Discovered Covered, is raw, idiosyncratic, out-of-tune and strange. Yet in spite of these things, and in a large measure because of them, his music is also beautiful and touching, expressing a charm and charisma that is a direct result of its sincerity, sly humor and the sad fact of Johnston's disorder.

Johnston's struggle with bi-polar disorder left him unable to support himself. The strangeness of his art made sure it would never attain mainstream popularity and thus excluded it as a viable source of income. Johnston probably would have slid into obscurity had his music not managed to make its way into the hands of a growing scene of musicians influenced by his DIY aesthetic. Well, it was their aesthetic; it was Johnston's necessity. Starting from the mid-90s, his influence could be heard almost everywhere in indie rock.

On Discovered Covered, some of these musicians have a chance to give back to Johnston. The first disc of the set is comprised of covers of his songs by the likes of T.V. on the Radio, Death Cab for Cutie, Calvin Johnson, Bright Eyes, M. Ward and the Flaming Lips. The problem facing these musicians is the same pitfall Jimmy Eat World fell into with "Game of Pricks": Try to rip off Johnston's sound and everyone will know you're a cloying phony. Try to make too radical a departure and you risk burying the simplicity of Johnston's genius. His sincerity forces sincerity in the musicians covering him.

Death Cab for Cutie's interpretation of "Dream Scream" is surprisingly one of the highlights of the record. Ben Gibbard would seem to be everything Johnston is not: whiny, slick and self-pitying. Yet he manages to convey to us, against a backdrop of sporadic cymbal crashes, a start-stop snare, piano and rumbling feedback swells, the girl he hallucinates to replace the girl he can't have.

Conversely, T.V. on the Radio turns in a somewhat disappointing rendition of "Walking the Cow." Johnston's original is a kind of warbly, minimalist doo-wop. It's ebullience is irrepressible, even through the murky recording quality. It seems easy to locate the roots of Sparklehorse here. T.V. on the Radio, though, never seems to find the playful center of the song, instead sticking to their comfortably mechanical sheen of electronics and guitars. Well, emoting was never their strong suit.

Even the normally insipid acoustic-pop duo Guster turns in a nice version of "The Sun Shines Down on Me." The original's loud, deliriousness is more hushed and restrained in the Guster version. They don't do anything particularly special, but their understanding of the sentiment and hope behind the song comes through in the barely perceptible vocal harmonies and walking bass pick up at the end.

Disc one closes appropriately with Tom Waits singing the a cappella "King Kong" in his monstrous bellow against his own vocal percussion and sparse guitars.

The second disc, which contains all of the originals of the covers on disc one, is wonderful all the way through.

Some of the money made from this record will go to support Daniel Johnston, who still lives next door to his parents and is unable to provide for himself, which is sad. Of course if he had been able to hold a job, maybe he would have thrown away his piano and boombox a long time ago. And without Johnston, music would be likewise impoverished.