Daniel Johnston Review from AG
- 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