Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reviews: Daniel Johnston / The Choke / Princeton

Daniel Johnston - Is And Always Was (Eternal Yip Eye Music/High Wire Music)

The tragic prince of lo-fi is blushing with the warmth of studio majesty. Daniel Johnston is the legendary shooting star songwriter; mentally-ill, once-day-jobbing at McDonald’s while pounding away on his Sanyo hours-on-end, his cherubic voice singing the most stark of melodies, spurred on by his love for the Beatles, but pouring his loves and pains out onto rough, scratchy tape.

The medium was never criticized for sake of the brilliance revealed. But on Is and Always Was, his first proper full length in four years, Johnston is aided by producer/multi-instrumentalist Jason Falkner (of Jellyfish, and former Beck collaborator), who brings in steadier backbeats, jangly acoustic guitars, smooth bass lines and subtle-lightning guitar shreds. Compared to his scuffed-tapes from the early 80’s, it sounds almost orchestral in terms of propulsion and dressiness. Longtime fans might feel his lisped vocal deluge of gut-wrenchingly blunt incantations (self-applying the word “psycho” on “Mind Movies”) mingled with sweetly sad poetic winders about the on and off hope for love from that ever elusive angel (“High Horse”), but new fans curious to get to the bottom of why all their indie-snob friends revere him as the true heir of Brian Wilson, might be off-put by his occasional off-key wails seeming to, at times, ride along aloof with the thick, rosy instrumentation, or some of his screeds lose their might or are made slightly more open to scrutiny when given such wings (“Fake Records of Rock n Roll”).

But the charm of Johnston, his passion, his incomparable knack for self-deprecation, his undying ear for melody, will likely lead the followers to find something, as the soul of the man is still at the heart of the album’s sound. Spinning through a love song to his dearly departed dog the first time made me cringe, now I’m getting misty. And that’s been an enduring quality to Johnston, on record and in his live performance – charm, a charm born from a man so real and so pained that it always, inevitably, ends up affecting those that hear him. Take away his illness, take away the bulging back up instruments (which are, it should be noted, despite ramblings of Johnston’s lo-fi past, finely produced in this presentation), the man’s still here; still singing about, as only Johnston can…

Blending the freewheeling fun of classic rockabilly, early 60’s swingable garage rock and a wee-bit of brit-pop, NY-based the Choke present themselves as a strong and rewarding source of infectious pop/rock—as delivered through the head-spinning rigor and wind-milling-arm-spin spontaneity of punk’s total release.

Some bands are incorrigibly set into that hard-driving, shattering style of fast rhythms and big crunchy guitars, but with the Choke – the sensibility for an arresting pop-style is so strong, - blending sing-to-screech vocals, hooky-riffs spilling into fuzzed, roaring onslaughts, all the while never loosing that almost-power-pop rally. Swaggering, head-bangable, fun, but also an undeniable edge – it grabs you by your collar, tells you not to fuck with it, then walks away with you feeling as though you might be in love.

Los Angeles quartet Princeton take orchestral pop to new levels on their first full length. Each entry is sweetened and swirled by the warm tones of brass, the playful coax plucks and doe-eyed angelic hum of violins and the atmospherics of organs dressing the corners – this is all set to an ever-stepping beat, nearing a jauntiness in it’s stately, waltzy manner, flecked and flanked with surf-toned guitars and a shimmering production.

It’s a cheery sort of autumnal blend – the vocals waft or drift like falling leaves in a low and booming way that would recall the melancholy story-book-ish delivery of David Byrne or Stephin Merritt. “Korean War Memorial” will conjure an 80’s new-wave shoegaze thing, fuzz-fucked guitars under echoey percussion; “Sadie & Andy” is a playful early 70’s McCartney type steppin-through-the-suburbs sort of folky violin jam of unrequited love; “Shout It Out” flexes their style, finding a dance-pop beat to put under subtly funky guitars and strings that continually bring back the classiness. It’s all over the map, but feels rooted in the basic elements of a steady beat, the low, charming yet austere vocals and soaring strings.

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