More than just an average tribute album, Built To Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston originated when the American indie veterans were invited to stand in as the late singer-songwriter’s backing band in 2017 for a few shows. This new 11-track compilation is constructed around actual rehearsal material, with the trio Doug Martsch, Jason Albertini and Steve Gere heard performing. Johnston, however, does not feature.
CD £10.22 EJRC167CD
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Like many people my age, I came across Daniel Johnston through seeing Kurt Cobain sporting his famous ‘Hi, How Are You’ T-shirt. That goofy little alien frog captured my imagination so much as a kid that it was naturally the first Johnston recording I opted for. At the young age of 15 or so and favouring thrash metal and the big alt. rock heavy hitters, I couldn’t really get into it, but it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. I found it raw, deranged, alienated but utterly unique, though I didn’t revisit Daniel’s music until his sad and untimely death last year. Built To Spill are a band I fell in love with after checking out a load of grungy indie rock acts from Nirvana’s era like Dinosaur Jr. and Pavement, so naturally I was intrigued when ‘Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston’ was announced.
In 2017 the indie veterans served as the backing band for Johnston’s US tour, rehearsing for the gigs by recording a selection of his tracks and playing them back to tighten up their sound. The album forgoes the haphazard qualities of Daniel’s songwriting in favour of driving and melodic indie pop, shaping a great Built To Spill album, minus Johnston’s alluring character. Fans flocked to Johnston’s music because of its outsider qualities, it’s always been about what isn’t there. As both an outlet for his mental health and a vocal form of expression, his recordings were haunting, sparse, messy and lo-fi, proving heart wrenchingly sincere and bittersweet. Built To Spill do a great job of seeing past the ramshackle songwriting, but end up overlaying each song with the same type of instrumentation which eventually becomes a template. Seemingly, the performances would have worked incredibly well as a collaboration with Johnston fronting, but they missed out on a chance to creatively run with their versions in the same appealing way in which Daniel let his mind wander. They famously smashed out a 30-minute version of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’ after all!
That’s not to say the record isn’t enjoyable, it’s consistently great throughout. It’s reminiscent of the lo-fi-through-a-60s-lens of Guided By Voices and Yuck’s acoustic-grounded indie. Doug Martsch’s sings with a fitting fragile voice, the bass bobs along rhythmically and the drums are never overbearing. ‘Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston’ is a hazy-eyed summer record that serves as a fitting tribute to their friend and inspiration. It’s interesting to hear Johnston’s songs with a more polished edge whilst departing with a poignant question hanging over it; what would a live recording with Daniel fronting have sounded like?
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