In 2017, Boise indie rock veterans Built to Spill played some curious shows: they played the backing band for the legendary, troubled songwriter Daniel Johnston, on what would end up being his final tour. While the concept was excellent, the shows felt messy and half-baked. Johnston passed away last year, dashing any hopes of future collaborations with Doug Martsch and his cohorts. To soothe that sorrow, though, Built to Spill put together a collection of straightforward covers. Their song choices are less obvious than you’d imagine. We do not need another cover of “Speeding Motorcycle” or “True Love Will Find You In The End” and Martsch wisely avoids them.

Here’s the thing, though: each of these covers sounds toothless. It doesn’t sound like Built to Spill doing these songs, outside of the fact that Martsch’s high-pitched vocals are in it. If not for that, you’d be hard pressed to find the band’s fingerprints anywhere – so tracks like the bouncy “Life in Vain” or “Queenie the Dog” could have been done by any other gentle, three-piece indie rock band. Gone is the classically Built-to-Spill-y reinvention that made their 1996 cover of “Some Things Last a Long Time” so engaging, packed with blistering guitar fuzz while still somehow capturing the spirit of the original. The songs of Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston put the gentle purity of the originals in the forefront of everything, but at a price: none of them are all that engaging, and they all sound kind of the same. Martsch sings with distant and echoed vocals while unobtrusively noodling on an acoustic guitar, and both drummer Steve Gere and bassist Jason Albertini sound little more virtuosic than people who have barely started learning their instruments, each’s talents wasted on simple bass lines and drum patter. It’s pleasant, but it offers little else than gentleness.

Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston ends up being the perfect example of why some Built to Spill fans may have trouble with their love of the band after all these years. Untethered Moon was five years ago, and There Is No Enemy was six years before that. The band is now just Martsch and whichever highly-talented hired guns operate with him, and the four-piece they were as a touring unit just last year was truly phenomenal, capable of weeks-long residencies playing Keep it Like a Secret front to back before adoring audiences, but still more than capable of turning in performances that sounded like he’d given up.

Criticizing a tribute album, to be frank, does not feel good. Be it from a critical perspective, or just in terms of talking about whether or not you enjoy it, it feels something like kicking someone when they’re down – or just plain gone. The task of honoring the legacy of Daniel Johnston while sounding like Built to Spill should have been an interesting task for the band – one that, again, Martsch has shown himself capable of – but instead they played it too safe. The collection couldn’t be more gentle and loving as a tribute, but by the end of it, you just want them to try something different with the music.

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