Late one night I found myself flipping through the channels and landed on PAX-TV, “family-oriented” programming with a none-too-subtle conservative Christian bent. The show in-progress was of Christian rap videos. Each “artist” aped, to the smallest detail, an established rapper. A quasi-De La Soul testified over jazz samples while MS-Paint psychedelic flowers floated across the screen. The Eminem knock-off (on a song called “Dear Shady”) was a sight to behold. Although the kitsch factor made it highly appealing to an aspiring hipster, the aesthetics involved were nothing short of horrifying—particularly when there is a growing number of Christian artists who are as interested in writing original music as they are invested in their faith. 16 Horsepower, Sufjan Stevens, Pedro the Lion, and the Danielson Famile are just a few examples of a diverse group of bands/artists who explore faith from different perspectives in their music.
The latest Danielson Famile album, Brother Is to Son, was recorded under the moniker Brother Danielson. It’s immediately apparent how uncomfortably Brother Is to Son would sit next to Michael W. Smith on the shelves. The album is full of nervous energy, off-kilter tempos, yowling vocals and chaotic arrangements. As such, because they sing not only of “Beloved love / Unfailing love / Abounding love / My walking love” (on “Our Givest”), but “Sectionality / Killer tongues knife up the harmony” (“Things against Stuff”), one is more inclined to sit up and take note. It’s no sermon; you’ve no excuses (and no chances) for falling asleep.
The opener, “Things against Stuff”, is as much rowdy fun as anything heard yet in 2004. Head Danielson Daniel Smith introduces the twin engines of consumerism, “things” and “stuff”, before asking “Which side are you on?” Then Christiaan Palladino’s piano crashes the party, breaking down the door and raiding the fridge. Smith continues, “Critics beware! Stand up and dare to shout hooray”, challenging listeners to take a little sugar with their medicine, or maybe instead of their medicine (this is a band that has its own costume gallery of nurse uniforms). “Who here can handle good news / Cause it will bruise the ego of all who hold onto / Sectionality!” Anyone who’s ever been to an indie rock show to witness 200 pairs of hands thrust into pockets and locked knees knows exactly what this is about. Brother Is to Son should make even the stodgiest scenester dance like a Muppet.
The time signatures are spindly and erratic. Each song seems to utilize three or more distinct rhythms. It sounds like the band’s playing on stilts, always threatening to tip over, but they never do. Even in its quietest moments, the album refuses to sit still. “Perennial Wine”, one of the softer, more accessible songs, is stripped down to a handful of instruments. Still, the pitter-patter percussion and jaw harp just underneath the surface keep it slightly caffeinated. “Cookin’ Mid-County” goes through several transformations, from whisper to Smith’s keening yowl, winding down with help from Sufjan Stevens’s banjo before segueing into faux choo-choo train chuffing on “Animal in Every Corner”.
“Sweet Sweeps” begins with the highest of falsettos and gentlest of strummed strings and builds to cacophany. Reading the lyrics beforehand, you wonder how the singer will get through “Our hungry souls tasting sweet sweeps / And celebrate the feast of the weeks / With the first-fruits of harvest wheats and brand new brooms / We are complete in him!” (there are a lot of exclamation points on this record). But the “in him” starts its own musical section, dropping back into the hushed tones of the first few minutes. The ever-changing musical settings allow the angular wordplay to glide through with few snags.
Superficially, Brother Is to Son is an uneasy listen for its spastic song structures, Smith’s sometimes screeching vocals, and the taboo of its Christian ties. But the challenge is worth it. The songs are well-executed, not shambling. The way religion is represented is thought-provoking instead of preachy: “Physics please explain to us how my fingers in his wound.” Smith’s voice is not a one-trick novelty pony. On “Hammers Sitting Still” he’s capable of startling, if nasal, emotional directness. A carpenter by day, he confesses “I just lost my finger / And I dropped my hammer down / I feel held back and frustrated”. Trying to make a living in the fickle world of indie rock can be hard going. “Work is robbing me of living / They were right about my dreams / My debts building while I stand here / Should this even be a song?” Oh yes. Yes it should.