It's a novel concept: Artist records album, label passes on album, new label signs artist, new label apparently goes under, producer tires of waiting for third label to come along and presses album himself. This background is worth mentioning, because though it doesn't affect the content of Daniel Johnston's first album since 1993's Atlantic Records release Fun, it does affect the packaging. In the case of an audio and visual artist like Johnston, more artwork is a big plus, and producer Brian Beattie has seen to it that as much of Johnston's art as possible has been included in this limited, Austin-only "pre-release" edition of Rejected Unknown; a national release is expected from New York-based Which Records soon, presumably with less lavish packaging. Since few if any people buy albums for the artwork alone, however, it's good to be able to say that Rejected Unknown is a worthy addition to Johnston's oeuvre, a well-produced set of songs that's more accessible than his early lo-fi cassettes, but a marked improvement over Fun's uneven mix of solo keyboard fooling around and too-polished full-band material. Rejected finds Johnston covering his usual three "L"s -- love, losers, and loneliness -- with more aplomb than he's managed in years, his wavering voice sailing above the Paul McCartneyish "Favorite Darling Girl" (featuring members of the Nortons/Rhythm Rats and a delightful George Harrison-style guitar solo), and the ironically jolly, Bonzo Dog Band-like blast of "Funeral Girl." Somehow, despite the generous orchestration provided the songs, Beattie manages to avoid burying Johnston's fragile charm in the mix. Lyrically, there's no one song here that can really compare to the best of Johnston's classic, oft-covered mid-Eighties output like "Walking the Cow" or "Desperate Man Blues," but the songs here are consistently good, with plenty of humor (the anti-redneck rant of "The Spook" and the Tom Waits-as-arena-rock-star bombast of "Billions/Rock") to counter the more typically Johnstonian sadness of "I Lose" ("She invited me to a pity party. Every hour everybody there was making fun of me") and "Impossible Love" ("I have nothing to say, and my mind's in decay"). Despite its surprisingly upbeat nature, Johnston's fans will most likely find Rejected Unknown more than acceptable.
3.5 -- Ken Lieck