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Built to Spill - Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston Music Album Reviews

Following a tour together in 2017, Doug Martsch & co. tackle an album’s worth of the Texas singer-songwriter’s work, but they fail to capture the strange and messy spirit that animates his music.

In 1994, Built to Spill took one of Daniel Johnston’s most famous songs—the hymnlike “Some Things Last a Long Time”—and made a glorious mess out of it. Where Johnston’s original was just his tiny voice and some echo-drenched piano, Built to Spill’s was a manned space vessel launch. Frontman Doug Martsch sent his distorted guitar like a kicked-over paint can into every corner, soloing for minutes on end. It was maybe ill-advised and probably a little dubious and definitely fantastic.
In 2017, Johnston’s booking agent contacted Built to Spill with this cover in mind. The idea was to bring Martsch and his new version of the band—longtime members Scott Plouf and Bret Nelson had quit after 15 years—to play a few shows backing Johnston on what turned out to be his final tour. As Martsch remembered it recently, talking to SPIN, the shows went fine, smooth enough—maybe a little weird. Johnston’s stamina wasn’t great. When it was over, Martsch approached Johnston, venturing that perhaps they could do this again. To which Johnston, true to form, said, well, he didn’t know.

Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston emerges from this fitful meeting of two diffident souls. Martsch shares plenty with Johnston—his frail, sweet tenor, most obviously, but also the childlike clarity of his most memorable observations. When Martsch covers an artist he admires, he usually excavates something unusual—see his cover of the Smiths’ “Reel Around the Fountain” or “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want,” for example, or his sneaky 2003 side project Boise Cover Band, where you can hear that Midwestern choirboy voice tackle two-tone reggae (Dobby Dobson’s “Loving Pauper”), glam rock (David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”), and even Captain Beefheart.

But Martsch misses the opportunity to commune with Johnston’s music, or to do anything with it, really. On the 11 songs here, he resists the urge to plug in his distortion pedals and sail away. Johnston’s songs are simple constructions, pieces of white drawing paper with only a couple of marks and a few folded lines, and the streamlined trio version of Built to Spill honors this simplicity. Martsch strums an acoustic guitar, Jason Albertini plays simple root bass notes, and Steve Gere’s drum kit ticks quietly. These renditions are subdued, and while they’re sweet, they also feel like rehearsals—nothing of the strange and messy spirit that animates Johnston’s music, nothing of the fairytale darkness that makes it haunting, sneaks into Plays the Songs. “Bloody Rainbow” sounds like “Bloody Rainbow,” but without the little hiccups in Johnston’s voice, without the slight flubs his calloused hands make on the guitar strings. “Honey I Sure Miss You” sounds like “Honey I Sure Miss You” but minus Johnston’s reedy intensity. Martsch has always been a shy vocalist, but he comes off detached here, even a little blank, and his readings here have all the conviction of a Hi, How Are You? sticker.

Martsch’s most expressive instrument, by far, remains his guitar, the outlet for all his unrulier feelings. When he allows it into the mix, things get livelier. Johnston’s rickety “Good Morning You” is polished until it sounds a little like “Fly Around My Little Miss,” from 2001’s Ancient Melodies of the Future. “Heart, Mind & Soul” is one of Johnston’s more devastating creations, a defaced doo-wop song trapped flailing under a rock. Played by Martsch’s new band, it sounds a little like a Sun Records outtake. And “Mountain Top” colors in the arrangements with some lovely background vocals and whammy bar-bent guitar chords.

But otherwise, he doesn’t express or exert himself. It’s too bad. Martsch has a somewhat vexed relationship with trying—the album on which he tried his hardest, 1997’s masterpiece Perfect From Now On, had to be recorded three times and nearly broke him, to the point he could barely bring himself to play the songs on the album’s tour. Anyone who has seen his band live more than once knows there is a gulf of difference between Doug bored and Doug engaged. He seems to be growing more half-hearted as the years go on. Built to Spill’s output has been sparse as of late—just one album in the last decade—and Martsch admits regularly in interviews to long stretches of writer’s block and self-doubt.

In that same SPIN interview, he confessed he looked back on his band’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” cover with mortification. “I think of that song as being so beautiful and delicate,” he said, “and us just rockin’ it out like that—it just seems so random and arbitrary to me in retrospect. Like, what were we thinking?” He may have a point—the cover does go on for a little while, and maybe it gets a little ridiculous—but at least it was a statement. Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston feels a bit like a shrug in comparison.

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