Daniel Johnston is a cult figure rather than an artist with a mainstream following for two important reasons: while Johnston is a truly gifted songwriter, his lyrics are often so painfully intimate and obsessively personal that much of his best work is difficult to listen to without feeling like a voyeur, and his skills as a performer are rudimentary at best, with Johnston's quavering, tuneless voice and primitive instrumental accompaniment enough to drive away most listeners unless they're determined to listen past the inept technique to hear the songs hidden within. In 1994, Kathy McCarty, a friend and admirer of Johnston, stepped forward to address the dilemma of his songs versus his recordings by making the album Dead Dog's Eyeball, in which she sang 19 of his songs, accompanied by imaginative and beautifully executed arrangements. The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered attempts to do something similar but with a more ambitious agenda -- disc one of this set features 18 different artists each covering a favorite Daniel Johnston tune, ranging from Tom Waits and Beck to Bright Eyes and Death Cab for Cutie, while disc two features Johnston's original recordings of the same songs in the same sequence. Presumably the idea is that new listeners, once they've grown to appreciate the songs in relatively sugarcoated form, will then be able to move on to investigate Johnston's songs in their pure form.
There is a flaw in this thinking -- while the covers on disc one range from good to excellent and in the liner notes most of the musicians make brief but coherent arguments in support of their choices, the original versions on disc two don't make for an especially strong Daniel Johnston's Greatest Hits album, with a number of key songs missing in action. (Johnston himself has compiled a much stronger overview of his work, Welcome to My World.) But the tribute disc has enough pearly moments to compensate -- Tom Waits' full brio interpretation of "King Kong," Calvin Johnson's craggy voice merging with the angst of "Sorry Entertainer," Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips joining forces for a grand-scale cover of "Go," and Jad Fair embracing "My Life Is Starting Over Again" with help from Teenage Fanclub. Disc two also includes song lyrics, samples of Johnston's artwork, and a video for the song "Rock This Town," all of which can be accessed via your computer's CD-ROM drive. As a testimony to the artistry of Daniel Johnston, Discovered Covered isn't quite up to the standard of Dead Dog's Eyeball, but as an all-star (or semi-star) celebration of an often marginalized artist, it's engaging stuff that never loses sight of the beauty and gravity of these songs.