The Early Recordings Volume 1

The Early Recordings Volume 1

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Daniel Johnston

Album: The Early Recordings Volume 1
Label: Dualtone

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Daniel Johnston

Album: Fear Yourself
Label: Gammon

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Name-checked more often than he's actually heard, Daniel Johnston is an oddball treasure destined to stay underground. Per its name, The Early Recordings Volume 1 gathers some of the first material he ever recorded, but "recorded" doesn't mean Johnston had a band, practiced, and then went into a studio. Instead, he spent his late teens locked in his fundamentalist Christian parents' basement with a piano and a lousy tape recorder, listening to The Beatles and desperately wanting to emulate his heroes. In the process, he laid down dozens of songs, and found an audience by simply handing out tapes to anyone who wanted them. Hipsters in Austin, where Johnston worked at McDonald's, embraced not only the eccentricities implicit in his mental illness (as the next generation would with Wesley Willis), but also the songs themselves: Diamonds in the roughest of rough litter his catalog, as cover versions by fIREHOSE, Yo La Tengo, and Mary Lou Lord would later prove. Though Johnston was institutionalized for a while in the '90s, his popularity steadily grew, thanks in part to another high-profile champion, Kurt Cobain. While Johnston's other early-'80s work has found its way to CD, the songs on The Early Recordings Volume 1 have been lost to history until now. Comprising a pair of sessions originally released on cassette (as Songs Of Pain and More Songs Of Pain), the double-disc set makes early Sebadoh recordings sound glossy by comparison. Johnston hammers away at a piano with songs of praise (for God) and warning (against drugs and premarital sex), all delivered in his permanently adolescent voice. While it's not all great, or even bearable, magical songwriting moments pop up that only the most clearheaded naïveté could produce. Those instances, where purity of intention meets the weirdness of the world, explain Johnston's appeal, both to other musicians and to his tiny but dedicated following. Last year, he got together with one of his many musician-fan-friends, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, to polish and record new material. Linkous, a longtime fan who released a cover of Johnston's "Hey Joe" on Sparklehorse's Good Morning Spider, seems like an ideal collaborator: His low-key, somber arrangements ought to fit Johnston's darker, stranger moments perfectly. Unfortunately, Fear Yourself mostly feels like an uncomfortable match. It begins cleverly with "Now," which flows from a hissy, old-school sound into a slick, well-produced one, as if to usher in a new era. It does, but mostly fails: Johnston's voice rarely melds with Linkous' production, and it loses its gritty charm amid such dignified surroundings. Maybe it proves that songs of pain need to actually hurt the ears in order to sound convincing.

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