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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2007 05:58 am

Bright lights and dim bulbs

Twenty-one artist tribute to Daniel Johnston a mixed bag

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Various Artists — I Killed the Monster: 21 Artists Performing the Songs of Daniel Johnston (Second-Shimmy)
Untitled Document Maybe you’re thinking that the world doesn’t need another Daniel Johnston tribute album, and maybe you’re right. Regardless of where you stand on the highly vexed outsider-art question (are we laughing with ’em or at ’em?), it’s hard to argue that Johnston, who’s been the quintessential cult hero’s cult hero for more than 20 years, is underexposed. How many slobbery encomia can one middle-aged schizophrenic Texan reasonably expect? How many people have to sing before he stops being an unsung genius? If a crazy guy makes up a song in the forest, unremarked by philanthropic hipsters and underground documentarians, does he still make a sound? Given the ascendance of DIY/indie culture, without which Johnston’s unusual career would be inconceivable, we’ll probably never know the answer to those questions. One thing’s for sure, though: No one can accuse Kramer, the mastermind behind I Killed the Monster: 21 Artists Performing the Songs of Daniel Johnston, of jumping on any bandwagon. A longtime fan, friend, and producer of Johnston’s, Kramer started work on this compilation four years ago and even resurrected his celebrated Shimmy-Disc imprint (renamed Second-Shimmy for the new century) to give it a home. He played on, mixed, remixed, or produced almost every track for the project, which is clearly a labor of love. Good thing, too, because if he had other motives, such as ensuring Johnston a cushy retirement or even expanding his fanbase beyond the true believers, Kramer would be the delusional one. Unlike 2004’s excellent The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered (Gammon), Monster contains no celebrity ambassadors, no Beck, no Tom Waits, no Death Cab for Cutie to win over new disciples. With a few exceptions — Sufjan Stevens, Mike Watts, maybe Kimya Dawson and Jad Fair — the artists on Monster aren’t even as well known as Johnston is himself. In fact, the CD tells you as much about Kramer (his obsession with the Mellotron, his immersion in the Brooklyn anti-folk scene, his Spectorish compulsion to construct spectacular monuments on the flimsiest of foundations) than it does about Johnston, whose heartbreakingly simple songs are sometimes overshadowed by Kramer’s mighty walls of sound. Johnston’s gifts are largely extramusical; when you can’t make out the lyrics, there’s really not much point. Monster is a mixed bag, as inconsistent and imperfect as Johnston’s own spotty catalog. Missteps include the Dick Panthers’ scuzzy psychobilly take on “Go Fast and Go Some More,” which wrings all the sweetness and hope from the original and particularly suffers in comparison with the miraculous Sparklehorse/Flaming Lips version on Late Great. Rope, Inc. contributes a chilly, goth-inflected reading of “Tears Stupid Tears,” which, with its melodramatic sobbing, Ian Curtis-style vocals, and looped Oh my God!s, is so ridiculously over the top that it borders on camp. Luckily, though, the highlights outnumber the blunders. Scottish dream-popper Dot Allison brings out the tender optimism of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances,” and Daniel Smith and Sufjan Stevens supply a ravishing chamber-pop interpretation of “Worried Shoes.” “It’s Over,” sung by Kramer’s daughter Tess against a glittering backdrop of fake harpsichords, perfectly captures Johnston’s childlike vulnerability. Best of all, the great Mike Watts marshals skipping beats and snaking bass lines to funk up “Walking the Cow,” one of Johnston’s sweetest songs, without destroying the original’s fragile beauty; it also boasts an exquisitely deranged solo from guitar god Nels Cline. Maybe another Johnston tribute isn’t necessary, strictly speaking, but Monster proves that the right tribute payers can make all the difference.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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