Experiences of the past five years, a new lineup, and stronger-than-ever inspiration have catapulted Smith and his players to a new height.
“Dare to be a Daniel / Dare to stand alone! / Dare to have a purpose firm! / Dare to make it known.” So goes the refrain to Philip P. Bliss’ hymn “Dare to Be a Daniel”, which refers to the Biblical figure but also aptly describes the work of Daniel Smith, leader of Danielson. With roots as both an art project and family band, Danielson has, over the past two decades, occupied a unique position as an act both brimming with Christian fervor and maintaining credibility in a largely secular rock music scene.
New album The Best of Gloucester County (named for Smith’s home county) was “created… over the course of five years” and advances the force and clarity of Ships (2006) -- an album brought to life by more than two dozen musical collaborators. Fewer musicians contribute this time around, but the new (still rather large) group assembled for Best of Gloucester County effectively steps into the Danielson mode. Nine members make up the “core lineup”, and when joined by a horn section and other special guests, the effect is something like an enthusiastic family jam.
While assembling such a large, rotating group of musicians might cause dysfunction in some circumstances, Smith knows just how to arrange his players in order to accommodate his distinctive vision. The childlike energy and spontaneity that fuel his vocal delivery and compositions create a musical context where the guitars, banjo, organ, piano and drums interact with one another playfully rather than competitively. Everyone is invited to the party and everyone has a chance to be heard.
Yet Best of Gloucester County is not all about fun and games. Surrounding the memorable melodies and stalwart rhythms are lyrics that address complacency, severance, conflict, forgiveness, and death. This is a quality that perhaps partially justifies the tendency to conveniently group Danielson alongside artists such as Daniel Johnston in some ill-defined genre of “outsider” music. Though such categorization threatens to dilute the unique contributions of the individuals being grouped, Smith and Johnston are bound by a similarly askew view of grown-up life.
“Complimentary Dismemberment Insurance” opens the album as a statement of purpose, singing the virtues of following one’s heart and warning against shiftless introspection. Rick Moody writes that Smith's voice is “somewhere in the area of two entire octaves, is in every register here, as though he has to be the entire chorus himself” -- a sense of urgency felt in “This Day Is a Loaf”. Every line of the song is delivered with multitracked or group vocals, which give all sections of the song the drive of an extended chorus.
Worth noting about Smith’s challenging voice is his apparent awareness of how and when to edit and balance his yelps with comparatively measured moments. In fact, this need for temperance seems to be the underlying concept of dynamic third track “Grow Up”, in which Smith asks “When I grow up will they recognize me?” He also paraphrases a quotation by "Amazing Grace" Hopper: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”
Given the context of the album as a party, the lyrics frequently link food to emotion and activity. During the delightful “Lil Norge”, which may or may not be an ode to Norway, a trio of lead vocalists ask, “Can we be friends / Can’t we be friends?” The female voice answers by articulating personal and geographical differences around food: “We prefer fresh bread over things that are fried / There’s no limit to what you fry.” As with Ships’ “Did I Step on Your Trumpet?” the song uses strangely specific objects and behaviors as a way of addressing more consequential disputes – it’s no coincidence that the discussion of fried food concludes with a reference to “oil money”.
Whatever conflicts that emerge in “Lil Norge” are gone and forgotten by the time for the conga line-ready “People’s Partay”, a song so emotionally upbeat and idealistic, it could have been lifted from a children’s album or television show. The song is also the album’s most direct call to fellowship: “Let’s all conversate, recreate, celebrate / Party the world and welcome you home.”
To make a more saccharine song than “People’s Partay” would be nearly impossible, a reality Best of Gloucester County embraces in its second half. While “Olympic Portions” provides a sufficient comedown from the pace that has preceded the party proper, “You Sleep Good Now” lulls us with interplay of acoustic guitar and banjo and Smith’s longing “for complete unconsciousness” and “a blessed sleep from which no one’s waking up.” Smith’s voice is mixed into the background of the shimmering “Hovering Above That Hill”, which is perhaps the album’s most surprising track. Bearing a kinship to the music of Robert Wyatt and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, “Hovering Above That Hill” benefits from formlessness that pays off the desire for oblivion.
If there is a climax to Best of Gloucester County, then it arrives in “Denominator Bluise”, which begins with simple and quiet guitar picking but continues to add instruments until its midpoint, when the song blooms into a bona fide rocker. Danielson’s association with Deerhoof has never been more clearly expressed than on this track, which seems to have been directly influenced by Friend Opportunity. Lyrically, the song anticipates the return of Christ, here a cause for another of the album’s many celebrations.
“Hosanna in the Forest” closes the album in a manner consistent with the calming effect of most of these latter songs. Reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans, “Hosanna in the Forest” is equivalent to credits sequence music; capping Danielson’s daring vision and providing a moment of peaceful contemplation. Best of Gloucester County announces itself as superlative – a high standard to meet for an artist that has already achieved such a distinct identity across so many compelling albums. Yet the experiences of the past five years, a new lineup, and stronger-than-ever inspiration have catapulted Smith and his players to a new height. In the words of Philip Bliss, “All hail to Daniel’s band!”