Thumb through the record stacks at any thrift store or flea market and you’ll find evidence of a strange, unheralded, otherworldly indie music scene which long predates the current one, reaching back to the dawn of recorded music. Multitudes of self-released or micro-label albums exist of fervent, sometimes downright bizarre, evangelical Christian music, released by a cast of characters ranging from snakehandling hillbillies, housewives, pre-teen evangelists, preaching hand-puppets and tiny church choirs who scraped up the money to record and release their sacred praise. Almost all of it is unpolished and primitive, but some of it is frightening, some of it amazing. It’s the aural companion piece to the outsider work of folk artists such as the late Reverend Howard Finster, who was known to pick a mean guitar himself.
The genius of Daniel Smith’s Danielson concept was to inject this tradition into modern indie rock. Initially a Rutgers University art project, he has corralled family and friends into performing — usually in matching nurse outfits — his whimsical, joyously off-kilter songs. Smith’s songs brim with religious passion, set atop unusual song structures and strange, often surprising instrumentation. From a head-scratching puzzlement in the Christian music industry, Smith has become a respected (if still puzzling) musician, the sort who gets covered on NPR.
Smith is no unschooled, intuitive naïf on a mission from God (as his supporters would like to believe of him), but neither is he a manipulative poseur. He falls somewhere in between — a university-trained artist with a keen sense of alt-rock history, a knowledge of the old-time tent revival traditions he draws on and an understanding of marketing and branding unmatched by few bands since Devo. He is, by all accounts, utterly sincere about his music and the feelings expressed in it. Probably the best comparison would be Jonathan Richman — another offbeat songwriter far too self-aware to ever be considered a genuine outsider artist, but also too earnest about his work for his persona to be considered an act.
All the elements of the Danielson sound were in place on the debut, A Prayer for Every Hour. Smith’s high-pitched stray cat vocals collides with such odd instrumentation as prominent sleigh bells, Chris Palladino’s inventive keyboards, family participation (in this case most notably the girl group harmonies of Smith sisters Rachel and Megan) and the quirky, sometimes disorienting songs. Definitely a love-it or hate-it proposition, A Prayer for Every Hour met with confusion and hostility in the Christian marketplace, where it was first released, but songs like “Nice of Me,” “Feeling Tank” and “Head in the Cloudz” got noticed in secular circles. (The 2002 reissue includes a bonus CD-ROM of several videos, including one for “Head in the Cloudz.”)
Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Chopping Block was produced by Shimmy-Disc honcho Kramer and is much more polished than Prayer, but still every bit as odd. Credited to the Danielson Famile, the album features the irresistibly propulsive “A No No” and “Jersey Lover Boy” and remains Smith’s most essential album.
For his next release, Smith divided Danielson into three parts: the Danielson Famile, Brother Danielson (Smith solo acoustic and, for live performances, dressed as a tree) and Danielsonship (an extended and slightly darker Famile). He divided the resulting album, Tri-Danielson, into separately issued discs titled Alpha and Omega. No matter what the configuration, it all sounds like Danielson. The more upbeat Alpha is the stronger of the pair, taking on such topics as cursing (“Potty Mouth,” a dialogue between Rachel and Megan about a disastrous date), men with wandering eyes (“Rubbernecker,” also the basis of an excellent animated video by the versatile Palladino) and flipping the bird (“Between the Lines of the Scout Sign”). Standouts on the darker Omega are Smith’s observations on television (“Idiot Box”) and original sin (the pounding “Noah’s Blood”). On several songs Smith testifies like a Pentecostal evangelist who has huffed a healthy dose of helium. Palladino steps further into the spotlight, and his increasingly distinctive keyboards lend a zany, carnival-like feel to several songs.
Smith offers few surprises on the Steve Albini-recorded Fetch the Compass Kids, but that’s okay. The exploration of the first four albums is replaced by confidence and swagger. As mature as any album which sounds like an over-excited, born-again elf leading a high school marching band through the streets of Oz could ever be, Compass Kids cements Danielson’s reputation as one of the most original and unique outfits in music today. Danielson is definitely an acquired taste, but it can be addictive.
Smith family patriarch Lenny, a longtime hymn-writer, steps to the fore on Deep Calls to Deep, on which he is backed by Daniel, Palladino and other Danielson cohorts. An altogether more straightforward and worshipful religious folk music album than the ruckus his brood kicks up, dad’s Deep should still be of interest to Danielson fans.
The all-acoustic Brother Is to Son is credited to Br. Danielson, although the entire Famile participates, as do Famile associates Sufjan Stevens and Ted Velykis of the (American) Ladytron. The most immediately noticeable difference is the absence of Palladino’s inventive, sideshow-esque synthesizer parts — here he proves equally adept at piano. The epic “Cookin Mid-County” could create a new genre — Appalachian prog — while the robust “Animal in Every Corner” swings close to straight-ahead country music. “Brother: Son” begins with a martial drumbeat before drifting into a hushed middle portion in which Daniel confesses to being a “goody-goody,” then swells into a banjo/Jews-harp-driven singalong. Daniel’s songwriting has become increasingly mature, introspective and confessional — even his voice seems to have grown up a little — and Brother Is to Son offers his most personal, least quirky (relatively speaking) songs.
Ships is Smith’s most polished album. The title is a reference to all the sorts of “ships” Smith examines in his lyrics (friendships, relationships, discipleship et al.) — there’s a long list of them on the CD sleeve — as well as a play on the configuration of the Tri-Danielson trinity, which was the “let’s invite everyone we know over to make an album” concept. Thus, the crew on Ships includes all the Smith siblings, parents and spouses, numerous Palladinos, Sufjan Stevens, Ted Velykis, John Ringhofer of Half-Handed Cloud and members of Deerhoof and Serena Maneesh. The prog-rock tendencies that began cropping up on Brother is to Son are even more pronounced here; remove Daniel and his sisters’ distinctive vocals and much of Ships wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Genesis’ Nursery Cryme. Smith guides his large supporting cast through his utterly singular vision with more assurance than ever, and Ships has the feel of being a summation of the Danielson concept thus far. As such, it’s a triumph.