Bob Dylan had the Byrds, Laura Nyro had the Fifth Dimension and John Hiatt has Bonnie Raitt, but no songwriter ever had a more imaginative or beneficial interpreter than Daniel Johnston enjoys in Kathy McCarty. On Dead Dog’s Eyeball, her revelatory album in tribute to him, the former singer/guitarist of Austin’s Glass Eye (joined by that band’s rhythm section and a handful of pals adding piano, horns and strings) takes an incisive selection of songs from Johnston’s home-made cassettes and recasts them in diverse, original settings as if she were unlocking implicit mysteries scrutable only to her. Even in the face of the songs’ mounting eccentricity, McCarty and co-producer/bassist Brian Beattie honor them by truly respecting Johnston’s melodies and lyrics in their reimaginings.
A tick-tock beat, jagged guitar interjections and cellos provide an effectively edgy underpinning to McCarty’s clear-voiced delivery of the absurd “Walking the Cow”; semi-tonal harmonies, munchkin chorus and stutter drumming make “Rocket Ship” a magnificent bout of weirdness; simple acoustic guitar supports the first half of a sensitive folky rendition of “Living Life.” Very few of Johnston’s songs fail to bloom in McCarty’s magic garden, and most are models of efficient ingeniousness: the bouncy piano, bumping bass and banjo of “Like a Monkey in a Zoo,” the metronome percussion of the spartan “I Am a Baby (In My Universe),” the detuned Residential guitars on the distortion-heavy “Sorry Entertainer,” the stately piano melancholy of “Going Down,” the rock power of “Wild West Virginia,” the dynamically dramatic Beatles paraphrasing of “Oh No!” and the cocktail jazz swoon of “Desperate Man Blues.” A sublimely empathetic coincidence of writer and performer, Dead Dog’s Eyeball is a brilliant feather in the caps of both.
The seven-song Sorry Entertainer plucks two tracks from the album, offers a rhythmically superior remake of “The Creature,” three previously unissued Johnston covers (“Worried Shoes” is amazing; “Love Wheel” is merely great) and one vintage Glass Eye original.