ALBUM REVIEW: Built to Spill – ‘Play the Songs of Daniel Johnston’

DANIEL JOHNSTON’S story is, of course, one of the saddest, yet heartening, to come out of the US indie underground.

Taken from us too soon last year at the age of 58, he’d actually begun his recording career at home in the 1970s; by the 1980s, resident in Austin, Texas, fashioning tapes and handing them out to all and sundry, he’d picked up a name as the hot outsider ticket.

Eventually, it would be the transatlantic indie scene that came to him: artists such as Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo Stateside, and The Pastels and the BMX Bandits in the UK, proved the worth of a sweet tune played with conviction over perfection. And so Daniel Johnston found himself, strange but true, lauded across the industry.

And beginning with Glasgow’s The Pastels in 1991 – who took “Speeding Motorcycle” and released it as a single for Paperhouse – it became something of a marker to show your love for DJ by way of covering him. A list of the acts who have paid tribute in that way is pretty much a who’s who of the cred: Tom Waits, Jason Pierce, Beach House, Sparklehorse, Eels, Wilco … .

And now, some nine months after his untimely passing, Doug Martsch and his retinue in Built to Spill have released a full covers LP – called, unsurprisingly, Play the Songs of Daniel Johnston.

The band say: “In 2017 Built To Spill was invited to play a few shows as Daniel Johnston’s back-up band. This is what those rehearsals sounded like: 11 tracks of Johnston’s fractured pop presented through the eyes of Built To Spill.”

And it does what it says on the tin: pulling favourites from across the Johnston ouevre, from the sweet whimsy of “Bloody Rainbow” and “Honey I Sure Miss You”, to a more fuzzed-up, glam-tinged “Fake Records of Rock and Roll”; from the heartbreak of “Impossible Love” to the Buddy Holly twang of “Fish”.

Doug Martsch’s voice is a nice stand-in, and he’s not afraid to crack a note or let it drop flat for that poignancy. Maybe I miss a little of his woozy guitar work, eddying and curling – but hey, this is Built to Spill in service to the work of someone else, and this cute little set is absolutely none the worse for that. It does exactly what it says on the tin.

Built To Spill’s Play the Songs of Daniel Johnston is available to stream and purchase on  download, CD and coloured vinyl with 32-page songbook at

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