[12 November 2008]
Trying Hartz: First Fruits ‘94 to ‘04 is a collection of the early work of Daniel Smith, the falsetto-wielding outsider folk artist. The two-disc set features material from the half-dozen records he made under nearly as many monikers—Danielson, Brother Danielson, Tri-Danielson, and Danielson Famile—as well as live cuts and singles. An indie favorite, Danielson is also a devout Christian, something that informs and animates his work.
Smith had already logged time as a “traditional” indie/outsider folkie by the time he had a revelation to make music more in line with his Christian roots, and to include his family in it. His work bears the imprint of those years in the wilderness—droning repetition, fuzzy guitars, and a willingness to try anything reminiscent of artists like the Pixies, Captain Beefheart, and Sonic Youth, among others. Combine those elements with his yelpy falsetto, a lyrical obsession with Christianity, and a mostly childlike instrumentation and you’ve got the Danielson esthetic.
“No No” and “Don’t Be The Judge” show how Danielson incorporates Christian values into outsider folk. The lead track from 1997’s Tell Another Joke at the Old Chopping Block, “No No” is a repetitive, swirly mix of banjo and bells. The lyrics are oblique—what’s a no-no, who’s doing wrong, and who’s forbidding it? On “Don’t Be the Judge”, a live track, Smith exhorts the audience to think up verses for the song—“they should be four lines, could rhyme, doesn’t have to make sense,” he says. They fill in amazingly, whipping off verses like: “People take their time / Getting ready for the party / They don’t say they’re sorry / Don’t you be the judge”. Those who don’t make up verses clap, sing along, and laugh hysterically, reveling in the togetherness and joy that a Danielson concert often creates.
Ah, but who is telling us what’s “a no no”? Who does Danielson think should be the judge? God, of course. And he comes right out and says it. Yet, he manages to not seem preachy—an especially neat trick as his conservative haircut and square-jawed good looks give him an uncanny resemblance to a youth minister. Even when he’s explicitly imparting a lesson, like on “Idiot Boksen” or “Pottymouth”, it seems more like gentle nagging than holier-than-thou condemnation. Who couldn’t stand to curse a little less or watch less TV, the morals of those tracks? Being nice just seems, well, cool, when Danielson is involved. And the crowds he plays to get the message; who else could get a room full of hipsters to gleefully sing “Won’t you be my judge, Lord!”
There is plenty to get you singing along on this set. “Flip Flop Flim Flam”, a 2001 single, is a xylophone-powered shimmy. “Animal in Every Corner”, from 2002’s Brother Is to Son, features some skillful banjo-picking and chugs along like a train, occasionally derailing for the chorus, when Danielson shrieks “Get the animal right out of my way!” And, yes, there are animal sounds, a rooster and a jaguar, at least. The schizophrenic “Rubbernecker”, from 1998’s Alpha, an alternately mournful, girl-groupy, and childlike song, is also worth a listen.
At Danielson Famile’s first performance in 1994 (a video of which is widely available online), Smith sports a shaggy bowl cut and billowy short-sleeved yellow dress shirt, looking like a character Tim Heidecker might play on Adult Swim’s Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!. In a way, Danielson is one of these people, a fanatical outsider with strange obsessions and seemingly no self-consciousness. Even once his shows began to ditch church wear in favor of visual art elements, the outfits remain what a discerning observer might call embarrassing: a giant fruit tree costume, or matching, dowdy nurse outfits for his sisters. They’re certainly intriguing, and like much of Danielson’s work, evocative and frustratingly vague (is that tree related to the abundance of God’s creation? Or is it just supposed to be funny?). Still, they’re not exactly the totems of coolness you expect from an underground phenomenon’s stage gear—Ziggy Stardust’s cape, say, or Bootsy Collins’ glasses.
Danielson has more in common with the anti-image of fellow outsiders like Gary Wilson. While Wilson wrapped his face in duct tape and Danielson puts on a tree outfit, they’re both challenging the audience’s expectations of how an artist should look or behave. Sonically, things are similar. Will you let his falsetto turn you off to these quirky gems? Will you be put-off by Christian messages? Or do you have the capacity to just listen?
Trying Hartz is an ideal first look into Danielson’s complex world for the neophyte, and an essential bookend to an era for the Danielson completist.