Tribute albums are like airplane food to the serious music fan. They really want to hate their arrival, dry unsavory resemblance of the real thing doled out by people who are paid pretend to care that you are hungry for it. But also like airplane food, you know you secretly salivate for it when you see that cart emerge from the hidden nexus of the plane. You secretly hope “This will be the one. This one will be delicious.” That chicken sandwich will be delicious, transforming the start of the journey into a vacation unto itself. And, my theory is all serious music fans are closeted or unrealized musicians and that they are waiting for the moment that someone recognizes your dedication and asks you to be the dark horse addition no one has heard of on track 13. Personally, I am going to start on my ukulele rendition of “Michigan State” for the eventually appearing I Put the Ovaries in my Mouth: A Tribute to Devendra Banhart, so it’s ready when I’m asked.
All that said, I always check them out, and this one is maybe the best tribute album ever, in terms of structure, packaging, and content. Everyone is in their Sunday best to interpret the honored mentally unstable songwriter best know to the outside world, if at all, for making that alien t-shirt that Kurt Cobain was famous for wearing. Lesser known is he for the devastatingly, openly honest and powerful love songs he’s belted out with his squeaky voice and reed organ into the Panasonic Portable of the Heart for years. The hit to miss ratio is rather high on the hit side, with Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes winning the spirit stick for his alternative-rock-tastic take of “Impossible Love” and the Eels taking a wistful run though “Living Life,” imbuing it with his/their own peculiar wash of happy-sad. TV on the Radio, a current big deal that had bypassed me somehow offer a good “Walking the Cow” even tough it sounds like Peter Gabriel being backed by someone drumming a bedspring. Clem Snide, an alt-country underdog I’ve dubbed “the New 97’s”, who caught my attention the first time with a cover of VU’s “Sunday Morning” turn in a splendid “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Your Grievances”, as does Vic Chesnutt, who in some circles is considered like Daniel Johnston, but crippled instead of crazy, stepping in with “Monkey in a Zoo”, making it his own. Hip Priest of the Overrated, Tom Waits kicks in with a surprisingly effective “King Kong” accompanying himself on (gasp) human beatbox. Elsewhere is Beck, (the replacement for Sonic Youth as for omnipresent tribute-album-contributor) Death Cab for Cutie, M Ward, Calvin Johnson and Mercury Rev (has their singer always had such a weird voice, or was all that reverb out of necessity on “Yerself Is Steam?”) all provide satisfactory renditions, and the few sub-par contributions are good enough that they don’t mar things up. Were I to have time traveling and unstoppable powers of persuasion, I’d have had The Mountain Goats do a cover of my favorite DJ ramble “I Save Cigarette Butts” but (sigh) no one consulted me….
Now, reviews like this can be annoying to the unconverted, so this comp gets the gold fucking star for including a track for track second CD of all the originals, so that you can go reference what inspired this pantheon. Daniel Johnston’s pathos is in amazing effect here, running the gambit from his hissy cassette early years to various indie rock prop-ups in the late 80’s-90’s. Plus, pop that cd into your TV-typewriter and you get a multi-media Flash thingy with all the song lyrics, a huge scrolling index of Daniel Johnston original artwork (like I stopped flipping through it at about 50) all for sale, with links to the purchase site. They are all around $150 I believe, which is too tempting to pass up. The only indulgence on the part of the documentarians is the creepy Flash 101 “video” to the only new track, “Rock This Town.” That song, by the way, is the perfect anchor on this CD. Daniel sounds cigarette addled and maybe even a little drunk, being backed up by a thrashy outfit on this uncomfortable hymn to being fucked-up. It reminds you that Daniel Johnston is not some Tiny Tim curiosity, but a real damaged person, who does not poetically dance on the razor between insanity and genius, but a guy that really has a loose grip and needs help to keep from plummeting down the well, like he has numerous times before when he ventured out on his own.
This brings me to why this compilation is worth your dime (two cd’s for one cd price). The proceeds of the CD and the artwork sale are all going to Daniel, and the story I’ve heard, is that his parents are trying to buy the house next door, so he can move out of their basement and lead a semi-independent productive life but be reigned in when need be. I personally thing Daniel Johnston is not only a good performer, a great songwriter, but an actual important artist. One who has the call to open his heart to us, and one to which we can open our wallets.