I think I might have had my mind melted.
I was just checking out some of the comic book for which this album is the soundtrack and the combined experience is powerfully psychedelic. I have to admit to not having read the comic cover to cover (not enough time), or having bought and played the iPad app (no iPad.. whaddaya say Santa ?), but then maybe that’s just as well; who knows whether or not my brain would have been able to resist the full power of the Johnston Vision. I was, however, listening to his “Space Ducks” theme while reading, putting my life on the line for you folks. But have no fear, there’s significantly less sci-fi and reality-bending in the rest of the album.
“Space Ducks” has already been released over the sea. It followed the comic book (Daniel Johnston’s first, although he has a substantial art career before that) and the iOS app and is intended to compliment them both. So what’s new for us, if not the whole thing ? There are 14 tracks on this European version of the album, two more than that enjoyed by our special friends. Daniel Johnston contributes 7 of the tracks himself, with the balance made up by a selection of other acts. The two new songs are by (self-described) London-based ‘Ghost-Folk’ fourpiece Die Mason Die and (new Bob Dylan) Jake Bugg.
NME are carrying the video for the theme from “Space Ducks” – click here to watch !
I came to this album completely new to Daniel Johnston and it has taken me a little while to warm to his idiosyncratic voice and delivery, but I gave the man a chance and I’m glad I did. I can understand why the voice might turn a number of listeners off – how many people do you know who won’t listen to Billy Bragg or J Mascis because they can’t sing so pretty ? Of course, that’s fair enough – and Daniel Johnston doesn’t exactly have Rufus Wainwright’s pipes, but there is real quality to be heard on this album. Having said that, I generally find myself more excited about the music that Johnston has written for this album than the lyrics and the singing, but the package comes together in a pleasingly summery, ramshackle kind of mess.
Standing out are “American Dream”: an Old West saloon piano has been relocated to a seaside bar in a tumbledown resort where a band of Cowboy Pirate Ducks are joyfully, slightly drunkenly, banging out a spry party number. Shots and beers are in high demand at the counter and Daniel Johnston is in probably the strongest and most confident voice he displays on this album. Nice one.
Then, on “Mean Girls Give Pleasure”, Johnston shows that he could teach that (no longer so young) whippersnapper Beck Hansen how to lay down a groove, AND THEN STICK TO IT, INSTEAD OF RUINING THE VIBE WITH DISJOINTED SAMPLES AND NOISES. It reminds me of “Hot Wax” in its delivery and rhythm (which is admittedly an excellent song that Beck did straight) and it did a pretty good job of sending me grinning and horizontal on the commute home, which is no small feat.
Finally, “Sense of Humor” which tick-tocks its way insidiously into your memory until you can’t stop humming it everywhere you go. “You could use some help” Daniel croons before the song breaks down into a glorious spread of screaming guitar and the “hold on mama” refrain. Lovely pop.
Amongst Daniel Johnston’s friends, notable performances from the two European additions, Jake Bugg and Die Mason Die. Bugg’s “Man On The Moon” is a haunting number where Bugg does a bit more expressing and allows his voice some delicate moments that aren’t always present on his pluckier tunes. Die Mason Die’s “My Favourite Cave” lives up to their self-invented genre – it is indeed some pretty ghostly folk with some haunted house noises and the air of a funeral march, although the killer blow is the deep bass that echoes the song title during the chorus: sonorous. The tippermost, toppermost single track for me though is… not a Johnston. It’s “Satanic Palace” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The throbbing bass and crackling drums give it a funky momentum under the spacy vocals, before the first of the delicious lead guitar cameos and then a key change for that bass really ups the ante. You could argue that the song wigs out for a little too long at the end – but you’re wrong.
Bad news for individual fans in the sense that the album only comes as a piece, but to be honest, if you’re a Bugg completist you should buy the album anyway – it has more than enough on here to tickle a number of your different fancies.
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