Daniel Johnston

Self-taught and self-recorded musician who eventually settled down in Texas and made a name for himself.  Eventually other musicians helped him "clean up" his music a bit, which was both a good and bad thing.  Obsessions include Casper the Friendly Ghost, The Beatles, King Kong, and a girl named Laurie.

See Jad Fair

Information: Rejected Unknown
Suggested first purchase/album: Yip / Jump Music
Suggested best of: Welcome To My World

Really Like It Daniel Johnston: Songs of Pain (1980) -- Daniel Johnston's first recordings were with his home piano and a tape recorder (often with TV or family in the background, sometimes his mother yelling at him) and pretty much began the bedroom recording revolution--as a potentially successful way of making records, that is, since Daniel did eventually become somewhat famous.  Highlights on this collection include "Grievances," "Joy Without Pleasure," "Never Relaxed," "Like a Monkey In a Zoo," "Living Life," and my favorite, "Premarital Sex."

Like It Daniel Johnston: More Songs of Pain (1981) -- Appropriately titled, since the premise doesn't change much from the first album.  On this one, Daniel seems to have recorded over a tape with some sermon on it, since that pops in from time to time.  Overall, things are sloppier and the songs aren't as good, but it's still got lots of good tunes.  Highlights include "More Dead Than Alive," his cover of "I Will," "You're Gonna Make It, Joe," "My Baby Cares for the Dead."

Really Like It Daniel Johnston: The Early Recordings Vol. 1 (1980-1981/2003) -- The first two Daniel Johnston cassettes (Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain--they were never given a proper release) are compiled here on two discs.

Love It Daniel Johnston: Yip / Jump Music (1983) -- Daniel is a pretty good piano player (as evidenced on Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain), but when he ended up having to stay at his brother's house in Texas, he had to leave the piano.  Luckily, his brother had an organ lying around and so Daniel was able to make an album during one of the many challenging periods of his life.  There's a great picture in the album art that shows an angel giving Danny (with a sawed-off head) the organ while the Devil is trying to drag him away, and that's kind of what the album feels like: a boy who is literally saved by music (many claimed to have been, but Daniel actually was).  So even though the album is Daniel banging away at the organ (apparently slapping it was the best way to get a sound of it) while recording with a regular tape recorder, the songs are remarkably full with lyrics and melodies that are extremely catchy and touching.  Anyone attempting to make honest-sounding music is going about it the wrong way: you're either honest or you're not, and Daniel Johnston is.  All twenty songs are interesting in some way.  "Chord Organ Blues" is a great introduction to the situation he is in (stuck in Texas with nothing but a chord organ).  "The Beatles" is the most thorough fan essay to the band that I've ever heard, saying how important The Beatles were to the world without resorting to hyperbole (like rock critics do).  "Casper the Friendly Ghost" (the first Johnston song I ever heard) is better than the real theme song.  "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances" is a great tribute to love and God (as are "Love Defined" and "God"), in spite of the fact that Daniel makes up the word greviance, and "I Live For Love" is even better.  My favorite is "Worried Shoes," a pretty Canon-esque progression of chords with great lyrics like "I took my lucky break and I broke it in two."  "Rocket Ship" should have been a 1970s prog rock epic.  And that's only a few of the songs.  The lo-fi quality of the recording is talked about a lot, but that's pretty much the kind of music I prefer and the kind I make (or used to make), so it never affected my listening.  For a week, I thought I had lost this CD and I was sad, but then I found it and I was happy again.

Like It Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair: Spooky (1989) -- This is Daniel Johnston recording with Jad Fair, the two of their voices sounding so alike you can't really tell them apart.  Jad Fair adds his brand of noise, so it's actually not as musical as regular Daniel Johnston albums, but the songs in general are interesting, cute, and sweet.  Highlights include "It's Spooky," "I Met Roky Erickson," and "Kicking the Dog."

Like It  Daniel Johnston: Artistic Vice (1993) -- Daniel Johnston with a full band, regrouping after going through emotional difficulties, beginning with the appropriate "My Life Is Starting Over Again."  Sometimes the band takes away from the greatness Daniel achieved alone, but it's still a really good album with other standouts like "Easy Listening," "I Know Caspar," "The Startling Facts" (a really funny story song about his Laurie obsession, with his awareness of how funny he's being), and "Hoping."

Like It Daniel Johnston: Fun (1994) -- Paul Leary of The Butthole Surfers produced this album, and -- even though the idea of trying to "fix" Daniel Johnston is kind of annoying -- this actually turns out pretty good.  "Life In Vain" is one of the prettiest things he's ever done, and it wouldn't have been the same without the addition of strings and other production.  Most of the album isn't over-produced anyway, with stuff like "Love Will See You Through" sounding like Songs of Pain era Danny and "Crazy Love" sounding Yip / Jump era Danny, just without the tape hiss.  Not perfectly consistent, but a nice change and shows that he can be just as charming with more conventional recording methods.

Like It Daniel Johnston: Fear Yourself (2003) -- Another instance in which someone tries to "clean up" Daniel's music: the clearest proof of that being the opening track where you hear the old-fashioned tape recording that then turns into the polished version, in this case by producer Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse.  So some of it would have been better if Danny had done it himself, and some of it works pretty well, the highlights being "Fish" and the really poppy "Love Not Dead."

Like It Various Artists / Daniel Johnston: The Late Great Daniel Johnston--Discovered Covered (2004) -- A tribute album on disc 1 and a collections of the songs covered in their original form on disc 2, making the second disc a semi best-of.  People like to cover Daniel Johnston.  I know why, too.  His songs are so minimal (especially the early ones) that people are dying to get their hands on them and make full-blown productions.  This, to me, is a little annoying: as if they're saying, "These are good songs, but man wouldn't they be good if they were recorded for real?"  The idea of what being recorded "for real" is is what's annoying to me, especially since it's been years since lo-fi took off and people should know better.  And especially since they claim to enjoy the simple charm of his recordings but feel the need to produce them.  Anyway, in spite of the annoying premise of this compilation, the songs turn out okay for what they are, even though none really add anything to what Daniel already did.

Copyright (c) Jun 2003 - Feb 2007 by Rusty Likes Music