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February 23, 1995|MIKE BOEHM

K. McCarty

"Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston"

Bar/None

In one of pop-rock's finest acts of homage, Paul Westerberg wrote "Alex Chilton" for the Replacements and elevated an overlooked, eccentric, emotionally fragile pop icon to deserved hero status. K. (for Kathy) McCarty starts from a similar feeling of affection for a somewhat parallel pop-rock cult hero. Taking the idea to far greater lengths than Westerberg, she comes up with results nearly as rewarding on this one-woman, 19-song tribute album.

Starting in 1980 and carrying on through the decade, Daniel Johnston, a West Virginian transplanted to the fertile Austin, Tex., music scene, churned out a series of primitive recordings of pop songs of unusual quality and in tense feeling--often touching on or reflecting his own battles with mental illness.

While Johnston has moved forward with the recent album, "Fun," his first major label release, McCarty, former singer of the Austin band Glass Eye, looks back with a sampling of his past work. The idea is to remake Johnston's crudely done originals with some semblance of care in the playing, recording and arranging. While McCarty and her main collaborator, Brian Beattie, accomplish that, they value a sparseness and idiosyncrasy that's appropriate to the material.

The collection heralds a songwriter of tremendous stylistic range and a lyricist who combines innocence with wit, but for whom those qualities are only flickering torches in a descent to strange, sad caverns of troubled feeling. The fervor and directness of "Living Life," an affirmation of Johnston's determination to love fully, render the song more poignant than uplifting: The need expressed is so naked and acute that we can't help but think of how deep the potential is for despair should that need be denied. The combination of ardor and fragility in McCarty's voice intimate the denial even as she proclaims the affirmation.

She handles the diverse material with a flexible alto that has the sweetness and guilelessness to capture Johnston's innocence, the theatricality to underscore his wit and emotional extremes and the strangeness to do justice to his weirdness. Listening to her, one begins to suspect that she represents some lost, Lone Star branch of the Roche or McGarrigle singing clans; Aimee Mann is another reference point.

The broad stylistic palette covered on "Dead Dog's Eyeball" makes for attention-grabbing contrasts and a sense of unpredictability. At the same time, the album is tied together by the unity in Johnston's imagery and the central, recurring conflicts as he writes of struggles for love and stability.

"Rocket Ship" is a psychedelic trip to zones first explored by Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd; "Oh No!" evokes the spooky, "I Am the Walrus" nether world of Beatledom, and "Sorry Entertainer" is a skewed, distorted garage-rocker a la Captain Beefheart.

There are also humorous vaudevillian moments, offbeat experiments (songs on which the main accompaniment is a running faucet or a ticking clock), heartfelt piano hymns and well-wrought acoustic folk-pop ("Living Life" is like a Platonic ideal of what the Indigo Girls could be if they were as inspired as they are earnest). There's even a Broadway-style ballad, "I Had a Dream," that Barbra Streisand ought to record. If, that is, she can cope with imagery as truly dreamlike and upsetting as Johnston's.

Like "Nilsson Sings Newman," Harry Nilsson's early-'70s album of Randy Newman songs, "Dead Dog's Eye" matches a talented singer who can catch the smart-pop public's ear with a songwriter whose own performing quirks make him an acquired taste, but whose work deserves to have wide exposure.

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