Music

Built to Spill's Daniel Johnston Homage Is Too Plain for Its Own Good

Photo: Courtesy of Ernest Jenning Record Co. via Bandcamp

Built to Spill offer up a so-so guitar-based, power-pop tribute to outsider artist Daniel Johnston that doesn't live up to the eclectic 2004 Johnston covers LP.

Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston
Built to Spill

Ernest Jenning Record Co.

1 May 2020

Listening to Daniel Johnston is a lot like playing a game of Fill in the Blanks. The core melodies and the song's basic structure are there, and so too is Johnston's passion – be it for Laurie, alongside Casper the Ghost and Joe the Boxer, or against Satan. But, if you listen closely to Johnston's ramshackle lo-fi recordings, lovingly released on dubbed cassettes, you can hear Beatles-level ear-worms and, if you listen closer, still, a symphony. It's all there; you just have to seize it. Even posthumously, that remains part of the wonder of the "pure" yet disturbed king of Outsider Art: he created music so primal and so full of bumps and cracks (and tape hiss) but tunes that also were tenderly composed and bizarrely pristine.

Built to Spill are no group of hacks. The revolving cast has been releasing good records since 1992. But, on their new LP, Built to Spill Play the Songs of Daniel Johnston, the group sadly fill in the wonder-filled cracks of Johnston's work with the kind of cookie-cutter guitar pop that's miles removed from the source.

On its own, the 11-song record is muted but sometimes engaging, if a little bit heavy on the monochromatic side of things. Opener "Bloody Rainbow" and "Tell Me Now", the second song, set the stage well with jangly, undistorted electric guitar, a plainly recorded rhythm section (here: Jason Albertini and Steve Gere), and the Buddy Holly-esque oohs and uh-ohs of frontman Doug Martsch. For all the varied textures of Johnston's work – never mind his switch from keyboard to acoustic guitar leads – the group, sadly, returns to this formula ad infinitum.

There are a few exceptions: the vibrancy of the Shins-ish and way-too-short "Good Morning You" and the playful Weezer distortion of "Fake Records of Rock n Roll", with its unusual but beautifully unhinged closing. However, the record finds a rut and sticks to it, which is the sort of thing that's amazingly antithetical not only to Johnston's catalog but also to his spirit. It's sort of like paying tribute to someone who JUST wrote guitar pop in plain 4/4 time. It's not inspired, it's flat.

What's surprising about this is that Martsch and company should know better. Three years ago, Built to Spill were invited to play a few shows as Johnston's back-up band. Although this LP was recorded in 2018, Johnston died a year later and never lived to see this project released. Luckily, he did live to hear The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, a 2004 tribute with an eclectic cast of characters re-imagining his work. He even appeared on the cover next to a "Daniel Johnston" tombstone, 15 years before his death. There, TV on the Radio offered pounding piano refrains and wonderfully atypical harmonies in a take on "Walking the Cow", and Tom Waits bellowed and roared while doing "King Kong". They were covers, yes, but the artists owned the delivery and sounded like they were having a blast doing it.

On Built to Spill Play the Songs of Daniel Johnston, Built to Spill sadly suck most of the vitality and marrow from Johnston's occasionally vexing compositions. As a backing band yielding to the whims of a great songwriter, yes, this material would've worked in 2017. As an homage, a Built to Spill performance sans the charged Johnston, it's pretty lackluster.

4
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Music

The 50 Best Songs of 2007

Journey back 13 years to a stellar year for Rihanna, M.I.A., Arcade Fire, and Kanye West. From hip-hop to indie rock and everywhere in between, PopMatters picks the best 50 songs of 2007.

Music

'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.

Music

​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.

Music

Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.

Music

Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.