Danielson – A wing and a prayer
“From the beginning, I’ve always tried to find the balance between making the things I was hearing in my head happen while at the same time not being too much of a control freak.”
Head-scratching critics who enjoying quibbling about “legitimacy” in popular music could spend an eternity splitting hairs over the truths and fictions that pervade southern New Jersey ensemble the Danielson Famile. Dry stuff, perhaps, but it constitutes one aspect of this band’s oddball appeal, and offers a dandy point of entry into their universe.
First of all, there is no family named Danielson. At least, not one cranking out curious records of primitive yet ambitious indie-rock. The real surname of the clan responsible for the string of albums beginning with 1995’s A Prayer For Every Hour is Smith. But history already has its share of established acts using that moniker, so Daniel Smith, the guiding light behind Danielson, got inventive. His father, Lenny, is also a musician, and the Smiths are a good Christian brood…hence, Daniel, the son, begat Danielson, the band.
As children, the Smiths were encouraged to make music in the home, and their practice — if not their sound — certainly harkens back to that bygone era when the thin, distant voices coming through the radio one week might be hosting a nearby barndance the next.
“I definitely connect with acts like the Carter Family,” says Daniel. “There is a very obvious connection to that tradition. We did grow up with my dad singing his gospel folk songs, and all of us playing and singing.”
But along the way, Daniel went off to art school, and his vision for the Smith family evolved into something more radical than anything A.P., Sara and Maybelle ever dreamed of. Smith still feels that all things Danielson are part of that proud tradition, but with a twist. “Perhaps the Carter Family influenced by Andy Warhol,” he suggests.
The earliest Danielson ventures bore key similarities to other, less-famous clans: The outsider basement rock of the notorious Wiggins sisters, a.k.a. the Shaggs; the homespun early ’80s punk-funk of South Bronx siblings ESG. Yet for all their rough edges and raw enthusiasm, since their inception, Daniel has orchestrated certain aspects from behind the scenes with a precision that rivals the Brill Building and Wrecking Crew vets who breathed life into TV hitmakers the Partridge Family.
It is this dichotomy — the warts-and-all realness of the Smith family, versus the carefully erected artifice of Danielson — that forms the crux of Daniel Smith’s aesthetic. As music buffs have probably already decoded, it is also a classic recipe for making original, sincere, and catchy music of distinction and staying power. Which is exactly the bill of fare offered on Ships (Secretly Canadian), the new full-length credited simply to Danielson.
Musically, the Danielson sound is instantly recognizable, no matter what name it is marketed under. (In addition to Danielson and the Danielson Famile, there are also full-length albums credited to Tri-Danielson and Br. Danielson.) On Ships, all the trademarks of their eclectic, joyful noise are evident. Although traditional rock instruments are hardly forbidden — “When It Comes To You I’m Lazy” grooves like a classic ’60s British rock ballad — guitar, bass and keyboards are more likely to be overshadowed by choral vocals, brass and woodwinds, and a truckload of percussion: drums, marimba, glockenspiel, and handclaps aplenty.
The opening track, “Ship The Majestic Suffix”, sets the tone, starting out with Smith’s keening voice accompanied only by acoustic guitar, then giving way to exuberant ensemble singing, chiming bells and majestic trumpet. “Bloodbook On The Half Shell” pulls a similar quick-change, modulating from a finger-snapping groove into a barely contained cacophony peppered with loopy lyrics that could dizzy Dr. Seuss. Joy runs rampant throughout, from the call-and-response vocals of “Did I Step On Your Trumpet” to the opening bars of “Two Sitting Ducks”, full of staccato figures that jump about, chirping like crickets on a summer evening.
The band’s other distinguishing sonic feature is Smith’s yelping falsetto. Although his abrupt shifts into head voice place him in line with “outsider” singers such as David Thomas (Pere Ubu) and Daniel Johnston, Smith considers it a fairly conventional instrument.