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Is and Always Was

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Album Review

Daniel Johnston first made his reputation in the 1980s with ultra low-budget homemade recordings that sounded as rickety as his notoriously fragile psyche. As Johnston's cult following has grown with the years, those early efforts have continued to define his approach in the studio for good or ill, as attempts to craft more professional albums have found him collaborating with sympathetic musicians attempting to make sense of his idiosyncrasies (most notably Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse on 2003's Fear Yourself), or working with producers trying to create a hi-fi replication of Johnston's early cassettes (something Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers did with surprising success on 1994's Fun). But with Is and Always Was, producer Jason Falkner has embraced a new approach; seemingly ignoring the artist's past work, Falkner has given Johnston's melodies a polished pop sound that reveals just how good the tunes can sound when given the right treatment. Falkner not only produced Is and Always Was, he handled most of the instruments himself (Joey Waronker play drums on six tracks) and in his hands, there's nothing halting or tentative about the songs — these melodies are smart, energetic, and engaging, and with this treatment, Johnston's music sounds like potential hit single material for a change, especially on "Without You," "High Horse," and the title track. However, all that changes when Johnston starts to sing — earlier attempts by producers to reach some middle ground with his music have given his quavering and uncertain vocals a reasonably fitting context, but the sheen and snap of Falkner's backing tracks make for an uneasy balance with his voice, which has developed a slight lisp while also showing the wear brought on by smoking along with its usual uncertainties. "Queenie the Doggie," a tribute to a departed pet, sounds as if its naiveté is more than a bit forced, and "Fake Records of Rock & Roll" suggests Daniel's familiarity with boogie rock is pretty sketchy, but otherwise this is a fine collection of new songs from Johnston, deeply personal but fascinating in their stark emotional honesty and surprisingly witty. But until Johnston's craft as a vocalist can rise to the level of Falkner's well-crafted soundscapes, he's going to sound out of place on his own albums if he keeps making records like Is and Always Was.

Biography

Born: 22 January 1961 in Sacramento, CA

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

As with other talented but troubled artists such as Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, and Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston fights a daily battle with the chronic mental illness that has plagued him nearly his entire life. However, despite recurrent bouts of delusional behavior wherein he has physically endangered himself and others, Johnston has carved out a respectable, influential career as a singer/songwriter of extraordinary talent who has grown since his first crudely recorded cassette was released in...
Full bio
Is and Always Was, Daniel Johnston
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