Daniel (AKA Danielson) Smith’s unique singing voice answers the unasked question: What would it sound like if Rush’s Geddy Lee had gone all experimental? As with Rush overall, Danielson is an acquired taste. The good news is that mankind has the ability to acquire new tastes. Something as basic as coffee was once a strange, foreign flavor, but most of us adapted to it eventually. In fact, many cannot begin a morning without it. Likewise, Danielson is a strong and special brew.
Smith, from Claksboro, New Jersey, is the leader of a performing family pack, which also includes five brothers and sisters. This childlike musical collective has been releasing albums since 1995, and is known as Danielson Famile (although that name has been tweaked here and there over the years). It all started as an art project for Smith’s senior thesis, then slowly but surely the family adopted honorary members along the way. The group’s art project roots can still be observed whenever the band plays live, because members have been known to dress in homemade doctors’ and nurses’ costumes. Presumably, this is a visual reminder that healing is taking place during these special occasions. Smith has even donned a nine-foot tall, nine-fruit tree outfit in order to better bear good fruit. It’s as much a Sunday school play as it is a pop group, at times.
With Ships, Smith steers his career vessel full circle. It includes a long list of people he’s worked with in the past, along with other folks he’s always wanted to work with. It’s a concept album, one supposes, although it’s not exactly crystal clear what Smith’s peculiar concept is all about. The CD cover includes plenty of constellation-like stars, which may allude to the way such stellar configurations have historically guided sailors at sea. This CD also includes stars of the musical variety within it as well, including Sufjan Stevens, who contributes oboe and even whistles for this project. Other guests include members of Deerhoof, Serena Maneesh, Why?, Leopulde, and Half-Handed Cloud.
There are a wide variety of moods found on this album. “Cast It At The Setting Sail” is garage-y rock, with eerie organ and horns o’ plenty. On “Bloodbook On The Halfshell”, you hear whistling, a high voiced vocal, and rocking guitar. For Geddy Lee haters, “Two Sitting Ducks—My priority” has a screechy vocal that may test your “Tom Sawyer” worn patience to the breaking point.
Song subjects include “Did I Step on Your Trumpet?” which appears to have underlying political intentions. But Smith’s web site denies that heavy theory. It was, instead, inspired by a real life incident back from the 6th grade. Smith was accused of stepping on another musician’s trumpet—literally. To the boy, this was a treasured trumpet passed down through the young man’s family, but after his fellow band member’s foot was all finished with it, the brass instrument’s bell was entirely flattened. So it’s the politics of band member relationships, if it’s political at all.
It’s awfully tough to categorize Smith’s songs, which make for adventurous sailing over rough seas. One minute you’re amazed by the innocent beauty of it all and the next you’re almost certain somebody sneakily recorded the church toddlers singing over random instrumental music, then called it Danielson. Think of this latter description as aural seasickness. Although it often seems like one big lark, Danielson is no joke. Smith is featured at length in interview segments during the excellent “Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?” documentary, and he comes off as a thoughtful, intelligent, and quite serious young man. So why does he seem to revert to childhood whenever he sings? That’s for him – or his psychologist—to know, and us to figure out if we can.
Maybe an analogy to the Lost TV program works best here. This is a show that takes a lot of concentration and patience to truly appreciate. You must buy into the concept and be willing to stick with it if you expect to get anything out of it. Similarly, Danielson cannot be a fleeting fling; you have to be committed to sail this ship for as long as it takes to get to its destination, or you’ll be shipwrecked before you even leave port.