The Late Great Daniel Johnston - Discovered Covered
Daniel Johnston's story is one of those stories -- a biography of an incredibly talented yet damaged artist whose only chance at any sort of mainstream acceptance is based on his being championed by other artists. He's Syd Barrett and R. Crumb for the lo-fi set -- and that's lo-fi with the lowest of possible lower-case letters. In this case his champions are the likes of Jad Fair, The Flaming Lips, Beck, and Tom Waits. Not bad folks to have in your corner. The short version of Johnston's story is that of homemade cassette tapes with an out-of-tune piano, serendipity, self-destruction and stays in mental institutions. Some see him as the ultimate outsider artist, the one who turned down a record deal with Elektra because he was afraid he couldn't measure up to being on the same label with Metallica (a decision he now regrets). But forget the mythology for a minute; what about the music? This interesting two-disc set offers covers by some of Johnston's more talented fans on Disc 1, polished professionals covering their favorite Johnston songs. Highlights include Clem Snide's take on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievience" (sic), the Eels' "Living Life" and "Like a Monkey in the Zoo" by Vic Chesnutt. It's a beautiful, accessible introduction to the somewhat more challenging Johnston originals, and showcases his incredible talent for heartbreaking, shy, unsure love songs. Disc 2 then introduces Johnston's versions of the same songs...warts and all. They're sometimes difficult to get your mind around but once you do, they won't let go. Out of tune, out of time and yet perfect love songs, Johnston's lyrics destroy with a simple turn of phrase, "Hold me like a mother would/Like I've always known somebody should" ("Living Life"). Perhaps the only disappointment is the omission of "Speeding Motorcycle," a song that was embraced early by Yo La Tengo and then more recently and quite surprisingly on a commercial for Target. Here's hoping that the Target money has kept Johnston safe and warm in a way that idolatry never could. But there will always be that rock and roll idolatry, and rightly so.
Track to Burn: "Living Life" (Eels/D.J.)
-- Tara E. Flanagan
Summer in Abaddon
Touch & Go
"Acute angles divide my path that I had lost," goes the refrain on Pinback's "Sender," which, for our purposes, can also do double duty as a summation of the band's excellent Touch & Go debut.
Acute angles are a staple for the San Diego-based home-recording duet of Zach Smith and Rob Crow -- a quieter, mathier Built To Spill, if you will -- and the paths they've eschewed are the emo roots palpable in their early work. Instead, Summer in Abaddon (Abaddon, a Hebrew word, suggesting destruction and ruin) is all gorgeous counter-harmonies over pulsating, intertwined mathy/jazzy guitar licks, high hat-centric drumming and complex bass-lines. Throw in some Eno-esque piano and synth, and this is the band's most sophisticated and successful effort yet.
The best of Summer... -- "Sender," "Fortress," "3x0" and "Soaked" -- shares a propulsive forward momentum, time ticking away, in direct contrast with the record's title and themes. For Crow and Smith, creative stagnation is the Abaddon their record abjures, their lyrics replete with references to blackouts, dead computers and deader ends.
But if Summer In Abaddon is this ever-improving band's reaction to having the devil on their heels, they -- and we -- have a bright future together.
Track to Burn: "Sender"
Variously a novelist, a poet, a notorious ladies' man, and one of the most revered songsmiths of the last quarter-century, Leonard Cohen's work is not that of a Renaissance man, but rather of a man always in search of his own Renaissance, whether through work or love or what have you.
Equal parts smooth jazz and Asian minimalism, Dear Heather doesn't blow you away, nor does it give you head on the unmade bed, a la "Chelsea Hotel No. 2." However, there is still a lot to like here. The album prominently features longtime Cohen muses Sharon Robinson and Anjani Thomas, both of whom provide just enough harmonic give-and-take on songs like "The Letters" to remind you that love, libidinous or otherwise, is either a two-way street or a "road closed" sign waiting to happen. "Dear Heather" is another seaside wash of want, again returning to the epistolary form to underscore the singer's balancing act between the joys of solitude and romantic love.
The aural opposite of a "Dear John" letter, Dear Heather's overall warmth and good taste invite you to kick off your shoes and stay a while. Call it the rebirth of a ladies' man.
Track to Burn: "Dear Heather"
--Timothy C. Davis