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Daniel Johnston Review from AG

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  • MaharishiStalin@cs.com
    I caught this on Audiogalaxy. Enjoy. ACW ps Ashcroft did a spot on Letterman tonight. Rewind: Daniel Johnston - Hi, How are You? Jeremiah, the bullfrog.
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 10, 2002
      I caught this on Audiogalaxy. Enjoy.


      ps Ashcroft did a spot on Letterman tonight.

      Rewind: Daniel Johnston - Hi, How are You?

      Jeremiah, the bullfrog.

      "Rewind" is a regular feature about our favorite albums of the past.

      Daniel Johnston was part of the reason I moved to Austin, Texas. I had just
      been to the college town for the first time, visiting a friend who sent me
      home with a copy of Songs of Pain (one of the many hand-dubbed Johnston
      cassette albums which are available for a few dollars in record stores all
      over town, packaged in a flexible plastic case with hand-glued labels and a
      little xeroxed Johnston drawing for the cover) and, upon return to St. Paul,
      Minnesota, I popped the cassette in my stereo to check it out. It was
      amazing, full of songs that slipped into my head on the pretense of being
      unbelievably funny and then lodged there forever by virtue of their being
      undeniably true. It boasted all the energy and joy of the best off-the-cuff
      DIY punk records but also contained, sketched out in rough form, blueprints
      for the world's greatest unwritten pop singles. All those wacky, hilarious,
      heartbreaking songs immediately made it seem like the snow outside my window
      was melting, like I'd brought back a piece of Austin, that freak-infested
      backwater utopia, back with me to infect my frozen surroundings. I want to
      live in a place where a guy like this can be a star, I thought.

      It turns out that a lot of my first impressions about Austin and about Songs
      of Pain were wrong, though. The album in which I'd heard such essential
      Austin-ness was actually recorded during Johnston's early years in West
      Virginia, and Austin itself, when I arrived, was already a freak mecca on the
      wane, an influx of tech pilgrims and sp'ute-driving yuppies slowly turning it
      into a Starbucks-dotted Anywhere U.S.A. I could still purchase tapes by
      Johnston (whose Austin hip-cache, it turns out, had somewhat dulled) all over
      town, though, so I randomly picked out a copy of Hi, How Are You? at 33
      Degrees and reconfirmed that the gleaming, volatile, almost frightening pop
      genius I'd heard in Songs of Pain was in fact real and not just a product of
      one afternoon's fevered recordings.

      Hi, How Are You? is one of the world's best pop records, as deliberately
      friendly and loving as it is accidentally experimental and scary, the as-yet
      unmatched highwater mark for all "lo-fi" records that aspire to be Sgt.
      Peppers on the cheap. It is the most personal, intimate album I've ever
      heard, without once succumbing to either preciousness or self-indulgence (the
      latter one of the few bad qualities present in Johnston's more recent
      recorded output). It is both pop music and folk music.

      It begins as the latter: Johnston emotionlessly intones the name of the album
      and then launches right into "Poor You," a song describing a catatonic
      depression (probably not unlike those to which the bipolar Johnston is
      himself accustomed: he sings "this story, though not well told, is not that
      old. It's not that funny, it's not that great, but I know it to be true."),
      performed in a tender singsong and lightened by his signature
      self-deprecating humor and the lyrical appearance of a dreamed "angel" who
      tells the protagonist "poor you, poor you, no one understands you." Two
      minutes of Johnston singing unaccompanied into a boombox, "Poor You" is
      almost a modern folk analogue of Roscoe Holcomb's classic performance of
      "Moonshiner," another song about the profound loneliness of the outcast.
      Johnston follows it, though, with irresistible pop: the angry political rant
      "Big Business Monkey" and, perhaps his signature song, the ebullient and
      playfully surreal "Walking the Cow," which has been covered by fIREHOSE,
      Pearl Jam and Kathy McCarty (among a who's who of Johnston interpreters which
      includes Beck, Sparklehorse, Built to Spill, Wilco, Yo La Tengo, the Butthole
      Surfers, and Mary Lou Lord). These two songs are recorded in a set-up common
      and almost unique to this album - bashed-out on a chord organ with Johnston's
      slamming fingers doing double duty as a kind of basic percussion and his
      voice, a high tenor already, elevated to impossible upper registers by the
      abnormally slow recording speed of his cheap boombox.

      "I Picture Myself with a Guitar" follows, one of the brief interludes (either
      bizarre, humorous, or both) that fill this album, and then the haunting and
      minimal "Despair Came Knocking" before we get "I am a Baby (In My Universe),"
      Johnston's cute, knowing ode to blithe youth, summed up in the line "I'm only
      22. I'll live forever." The album's next major highlight (along with the
      lullaby-sweet "Running Water" and aside from a few interludes containing such
      funny/grotesque lines as "Nobody wants to kiss you when you're dead, nobody
      wants to lie in bed with you when your flesh is rotting") comes with the
      eldritch, unnerving "Desperate Man Blues," in which Johnston sings along to
      an old big band track - presumably culled from the radio or from an old
      record, but rendered by his boombox's mic and tape heads as impossibly
      swampy, decrepit to an almost Lynchian degree. As a work of matter-of-fact
      pop/folk appropriation, the transformation of one song into another,
      "Desperate Man Blues"'s sheer strangeness and odd power have yet to be
      topped. Hi, How Are You?'s centerpiece, though, comes in the four-song medley
      which concludes the album, encompassing both the album's most hilarious
      moments ("Keep Punching Joe"'s lounge-act pastiche, in which Johnston tells
      an imaginary audience "I tell you, my soul's like running water: hot or cold,
      now, one or the other. I guess I lean towards the excessive, but that's just
      the way it is when you're a manic-depressive") and its most sublimely
      profound ones ("Hey Joe," Johnston's best ballad, which is easily as powerful
      as the McCartney song it references). Obviously patterned on the B-side of
      Abbey Road, Johnston's "Joe" song-cycle deftly riffs on and mixes up all of
      the motifs the record has been juggling - angels, cow-walking, singing the
      blues, running water, and "pest control," (it also alludes to Johnston's
      sometimes troubled relationship with his family, who can be heard berating
      him in the background of various Johnston albums). A seamless miniature
      concept album that sums up, broadens, and recasts everything that came before
      it, the medley catapults the record from "interesting" to "immortal," a
      singular work by one of the few true visionary artists working in the pop
      form. I realized, listening to this record for the first time, that I had
      been so naïve to ever hope that the town Johnston lived in could be anything
      like the world in his head, since said world was such a singular place with
      admittance granted, and cursed, to only one.

      -Will Robinson Sheff
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