Danielson: Best of Gloucester County

Experiences of the past five years, a new lineup, and stronger-than-ever inspiration have catapulted Smith and his players to a new height.


Best of Gloucester County

Label: Sounds Familyre
US Release Date: 2011-02-22
UK Release Date: 2011-03-14

“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!”


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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