This is one of those rare albums that one really, really, wants to like before it has even been removed from its case. Assembled and produced by revered New York “Slowcore” pioneer Kramer (an artist in his own right as well as producer for, amongst others, Galaxie 500) for whom the 1990s were disastrous on several counts, including the acrimonious demise of his Shimmy Disc imprint and the subsequent announcement of his retirement from the music industry. I Killed the Monster features cover versions of the songs of Bi-polar Disorder-suffering “outsider” musician and artist Daniel Johnston, who has spent much of the last decade in and out of various mental institutions. It is a project that one keenly hopes will come off and, thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. There are a few duds, but on an album of 21 off-kilter songs by hugely disparate performers, that’s hardly surprising.
As the first release on the newly formed Second Shimmy imprint, the timing is a masterstroke (whether judicious or fortuitous, I’m not sure), following hot on the heels of the critically lauded documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”, which scooped major prizes at last years Sundance festival. Another album of covers, Discovered Covered, was released in 2004 featuring bigger hitters (Tom Waits, Beck, Eels, etc) than those on the roster here but it should be the case that recent media coverage resulting from the film will help push this record to a wider audience.
The biggest challenge for an artist covering the work of such a decidedly singular songwriter is how to approach such nakedly painful and personal music. Even though recent releases by Johnston have received a production gloss from luminaries like Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous, much of his oeuvre is at the lowest end of Lo-Fi: often recorded directly to tape with rudimentary strummed guitar, and sung in a cracked, high, lispy voice that sounds as though it might break down any minute. His subject matter is harrowingly confessional, dealing with his numerous breakdowns, his obsession with the unrequited love of a College student he knew in the ’80s (Laurie), and his peculiar and extreme take on Christianity, in which his soul is the battlefield in a perpetual war between angels and devils. Whether performers opt for straight-out authentic covers of his songs or a radical reworking of the material, the results are mostly fascinating.
Opener “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” is one of the album’s more obvious misfires. Though impeccably sung by Scottish chanteuse Dot Allison, her breathy sensual vocals fail to connect with the mood of desperate hope that the lyrics try to create; the result feels flat and lifeless. “Worried Shoes”, on the other hand, is a masterstroke with Daniel Smith and Sufjan Stevens combining, over a gentle choral arrangement, to create a mournful ballad of real power wrested from the childlike refrain “I got a lot of walking to do / And I don’t want to wear my worried shoes”. Joy Zipper’s “Held the Hand” continues in the same vein, keeping the song in its stripped-down form, a “whistling” solo lending just the right note of bemused despair. It seems as though sticking to Daniel Johnston’s original minimalist blueprint may be the best way forward, but there are more surprises to come in the sprawl of the album’s 21 tracks, as it veers off into the territory of the deeply strange.
Underground legend, and fellow “outsider artist”, J. Stevie Moore turns in one of the weirdest, most intriguing songs I have heard in ages. Sung in a rich Country and Western croon with music by way of Angelo Badalamenti, the Residents, and Yello, “Cathy Cline” at times sounds like two records being played simultaneously. By turns jaunty and sinister, it features the (punning) ghostly echo of the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” in its “Here she comes…” refrain, an eerie transmission from the simpler more straightforward era of early rock ‘n’ roll. Like many of Johnston’s original recordings, it is completely and utterly unique, the work of someone divorced from all cultural fads and trends. Rope Inc.’s “Tears Stupid Tears” goes straight for the sinister route; a keening voice, not unlike Daniel Johnston’s own, shrieks “Oh my God” to the sound of a woman crying, over John Cale-esque violin drone and spooky synthesizer, before the song evolves into doomy gothic electronica. The Sutcliffes’ “Foxy Girl” heads for ’60s R&B, all squally Harmonica with a bubblegum pop chorus: “She’s a foxy girl and she knows how to please / She brings out the man inside of me”. What Johnston would make of the richly produced, sassy, jazz/funk of Emily Zuzik’s “Love Wheel” I have no idea. In mood and tone it’s about a trillion miles from the shy, insular, frightened sound of his own recordings. It just goes to show that the sparseness and underproduction of the original songs allows massive license for radical reinterpretation; this boldness in approach is to be applauded as it allows fans to come to the material afresh.
Those familiar with Johnston’s output will be surprised at the wide-ranging nature of these interpretations; the unfamiliar will perhaps find a less daunting introduction to the work of this singular artist than that of his own often scratchy and primitive recordings. It seems that the man himself has achieved a measure of stability in his personal life and has recently played acclaimed shows with Jason (Spaceman) Pierce, Vic Chesnutt, and Teenage Fanclub, amongst others. Kramer is to be applauded for assembling this warm tribute that, although wildly varied, showcases a rare and unusual songwriting talent that, hopefully, will continue to beguile.