Built to Spill | Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston | Ernest Jenning Record Co.
Four out of five stars
Tribute albums are tricky. Covering someone else’s songs can be a fun and novelty way to spice up a band’s live show, but recording an album’s worth of another artist’s material is always going to be met with skepticism from fanbases on both sides. “Why not a new album of originals instead?” “Why listen to a tribute over the real thing?” In many ways a band needs to approach a tribute with the same amount of curiosity and creative drive they approach their own music.
In 2017 Built to Spill were invited to be Daniel Johnston’s backing band for a series of farewell concerts. The now deceased singer/songwriter and indie rock icon had been in poor health for a while and announced he would be backed by a different band for each leg of his final shows.
While preparing for the two-date run, Built to Spill frontman Doug Martsch decided to record their practice sessions to share with friends. Not long after that Martsch was in the studio with the intent of working on some original material, but instead found himself coming back to Johnston’s songs. The band ended up recording Built to Spill Plays the Song of Daniel Johnston, a tribute to Johnston’s massive, diverse body of work.
Built to Spill and Johnston is a near perfect marriage of pop rock sensibilities and lyrical sincerity. The album’s opening track, “Bloody Rainbow,” see’s one of Johnston’s shakey, old, acoustic live favorites transformed into a grooving, rock song that could easily be mistaken for a Built to Spill original. These covers have an effortless quality to them, like the music was already written into the band’s DNA.
Martsch has had a connection to Johnston’s brand of raw, lofi pop since the earliest Built to Spill records, even teaming up with Beat Happening frontman and twee rock crown prince Calvin Johnson to form now-defunct supergroup The Halo Benders. So it’s no surprise that Martsch feels well prepared to navigate the childlike innocence and wonder that is captured in these songs.
The album was recorded with the same rhythm section that backed Martsch for Built to Spill’s 2015 album, Untethered Moon, Jason Abertini (bass) and Steve Gere (drums). These recordings turned out to be that lineups swan song as both members left the band in 2018 to reform Albertini’s old band Duster.
Built to Spill brings the inherent 50s and 60s pop rock qualities in many of Johnston’s songs to the forefront on this tribute. And in many ways, some of these songs sound more realized than ever. Johnston was often striving to emulate his songwriting heroes John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And nobody short of The Beatles could’ve done these songs better justice than Built to Spill. Martsch and company up the musicianship without sacrificing the emotional honesty and raw intensity of Johnston’s songs.
Martsch gives a terrific, heartfelt vocal performance that seals the deal on these tracks. “Life in Vain” is transformed from sentimental, anti-folk into an energetic, punk jaunt, emotionally grounded by Martsch’s somber, sweet vocal delivery. And “Mountain Top” sees its gorgeous string section replaced with breezy, restrained, whammy bar-heavy finger picking. Martsch plays to serve the songs here, highlighting their strengths.
Other standouts include a straightforward, tender take on “Impossible Love,” and a cranked up, gained out “Fake Records of Rock and Roll”. Also “Honey I Sure Miss You”, which sounds like a lost track from A Hard Day’s Night.
Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston manages to do what most tribute albums aspire to, but few achieve — it stands as a testament to the songs and to the band reimagining them. Martsch spotlights Johnston’s lyrics and arrangements in a fresh, innovative way that makes us reconsider these songs while reminding us why we fell in love with them in the first place.