This review originally appeared on The Quietus: http://thequietus.com/articles/14140-my-yoke-is-heavy-yorkston-crowley-johnstone-review
James Yorkston describes this album’s first life as “an obscure micro-label’s tribute release of a cult musician, played by two bottom-rung songsters”, which is of course, at least in part, not quite correct. Yorkston (one of the original Fife Fencers) and Irish musician Adrian Crowley certainly hover far higher up the ladder than the self-deprecating Scotsman would suggest, and on this collection of covers the pair comfortably complement the troubled American artist and songwriter Daniel Johnston.
At some point in the past the Celt duo were independently introduced to the tortured father of modern lo-fi by (girl)friends, which in one way or another led them to contribute to the 2006 Barbican concert in support of the lauded documentary, The Devil And Daniel Johnston. Yorkston had crossed paths with the enigmatic underground icon a few times over the years, and following on from the London gig, he and Crowley decided to create some rough recordings of Johnston’s work. These were tossed back and forth across the choppy Irish Sea, with each balladeer adding bits here and there from pretty much whatever came to hand (toys, electronic equipment, city sounds). The now (sort of) defunct Fence Records burned 99 CDRs of the selection of re- workings, which found homes with Homegame festival-goers in 2009.
Now, several years on, top Glasgow label Chemikal Underground is releasing these patchwork pieces to the wider world – albeit in a very limited physical press of 500 vinyl copies and 500 CDs (as well as digital download). The eight tracks that inhabit My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston focus on some of his seminal works of the 1980s, with the reinterpretations highlighting the artist’s lyrical talents and building on his original DIY ethic.
A church bell tolls through opener ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances’ – a chipper ode to hope with vocals dropped a few octaves from the childlike screech of the first Daniel Johnston version. Eerie bird sounds run underneath luminous bouzouki strumming, like the sound of a cat that’s not quite sure if it’s dying or on heat. ‘Held The Hand’ is next, with simple sad piano and tragic pipe sounds – a mental illness confessional that says so much in so few words – before the perky melodies of ‘Like A Monkey In The Zoo’ belie the sadness of the song’s poetic melancholia.
Johnston’s gifted wordsmithery is never more obvious than through ‘My Yoke Is Heavy’ with the wonderful line “My voice is a little horse, galloping lost through the woods” (so clearly an influence on the late, great Mark Linkous) and the elegance of ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’. ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ is a scratch, pop and crackle glimmer of beauty and Casio pitch-shift optimism, leading to the plink repetition of album closer ‘Walking The Cow’.
The vocals on all of these tracks are calmer/lower and more easily accessible than the quavering falsetto of the originals, but retain the fragility and essence of their primary intention. Johnston has been covered by all manner of fantastic artists, from Yo La Tengo and The Pastels through to The Twilight Sad, and here things stay stripped back enough to allow the space for the songs and words to really be appreciated, all the while observing the fundamental garage ethos.
This record is a sweet and fitting homage to a largely unknown yet highly revered and important songwriter, bringing the songs of Daniel Johnston a new dimension, cementing and extending the appeal of his brilliance.