Br. Danielson

Brother Is To Son

(Secretly Canadian; 2004)

By Dom Sinacola | 3 August 2004

I’m starting my Christmas list early this year. Normally, the first two weeks of sepia-tinged October have gone by before I begin scribing each bullet point into something of a running tally on the fridge, but Br. Danielson’s Brother is to Son has got me salivating like a hobo for a ham sandwich. You see, Santa, I want a Daniel Smith action figure. Make that Giant Tree Suit Br. Danielson, his persona on stage, rather than Nurse Danielson, even though I know such an early model is feverishly sought by collectors.

There is just something enchanting about watching the elder of the frenetic Danielson Famile commanding a choir of G.I. Joes and Ninja Turtles. Entrance Cobra Commander into a jig by the jangle-stomp guitars that warble all over Danielson’s tricky cadence. Pose Master Splinter into a jubilant howl. These would leave any seven year-old giggly. Or terrified. This is because Brother is to Son, the latest release from the Danielson/Sounds Familyre camp, carries just such a Carnival Tradition. It’s one fat, grotesque record. A used-car salesman’s pitch during the Apocalypse.

This is not to say that Danielson’s things and stuff are fueled by commercialism. In fact, the first song, “Things Against Stuff,” rallies a sarcastic yelp against “our country’s” divisive consumer pastimes with a vigor that never stumbles into cynicism. It is this insistence against jaded resignation that lifts Brother from psychedelic dreck into charming whimsy. There is an inherent delight in the opener that carries throughout the whole record, even during some of the most disjointed, cacophonous pieces, like “Our Givest” or “Sweet Sweeps.” In turn, Br. Danielson has crafted a record soaked in childish, googly-eyed slobber.

This is Smith’s first solo-titled release, but the Danielson Famile (Daniel Smith’s brothers, sisters and wife), still fill the gaps between his strumming and whooping. Sufjan Stevens even lends his now-familiar banjo prowess to the mix. Br. Danielson is most definitely the focus, though, as in each song his acoustic chugging and surreal harmonizing (imagine him competing with a tiny version of himself, debating whether or not to step on the doppelganger freak) float above, and maintain, the thick mix.

This collective cluster-fuck sound is only emphasized by the seemingly religious content of Brother’s most arresting moments. Stripped of most dogma and ceremony, the burden of the disc’s message is not in conversion, but rather, like Sufjan Stevens’ deftly handled Seven Swans (2004), in the need to accent the immediacies of faith. For “Physician Heal Yourself,” Smith begs the subject from the cross and admits to his own weakness by displaying it as a necessary, and ultimately beautiful, exigency of the human condition (or, in Daniel Smith’s case, of being crazy-tree-wearing-post-post-modern-evangelist Br. Danielson). The music, too, is painfully aware of its own faults, as each falsetto yelp shoulders a shaking voice and each thundering drum arrangement quakes on the verge of collapse.

“Cookin’ Mid-County” even stops three-quarters of the way through the song as Danielson spouts worried orders of “C’mon, let’s pack it up!/ Let’s go,” before slipping into a coo as menacing as its sparse piano backup and as lulling as Stevens’ soft banjo plucking. In “Our Givest,” Danielson layers shriek upon shriek, chanting “YOU GIVE GIFTS…,” listing said gifts in said shrieking, and ceasing right at the absolute limit of bearability. It is Br. Danielson’s unsettling voice that may prove to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome for listeners, not the religious innuendo or steadfast tales of redemption. Yet, much like the tendency of Contemporary Christian artists to stick to a very archetypal mold, Smith’s repetition of soft/loud dynamism could smack of novelty before the album’s close.

Once past the initial acclimation to Brother is to Son’s circusy assault, the album yields a number of brilliant concoctions. “Animal in Every Corner” clings like a locomotive to the rails of Melissa Palladino’s bouncing violin and, once again, Sufjan Stevens’ subdued banjo, bringing the Famile together for a slaphappy crescendo. “Perennial Wine” is Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy wading through the bayou; Danielson’s verses dissolve into nothing more than sweet wisps of coherency within four minutes. “Brother: Son” completes the album on a satisfying high as Br. Danielson slinks around a bare guitar and his Famile’s female counterparts before unveiling the most unabashedly poppy melody of all ten songs.

The brilliant paradox of Brother is in the child-like boisterousness of shouted verses and flailing arrangements spat alongside a comprehensive, weathered understanding of one’s dire need to be saved. To write off Smith’s music as silly or even infantile is to ignore this artist’s masterful conception of a cycle of denial, acceptance, redemption, and joy that, in its repetition, identifies something of critical value below the oft-hollow symbols of typical Christian fare. Sure, this record is childish, but only in the blind glee in which Smith tackles the most puzzling flourishes of sound and the most limiting aspects of his musical ability. In all of its insanity, it’s great to hear.

Br. Danielson would most likely oppose an action figure rendition of himself (and the “hobo” analogy earlier), preferring to keep his music away from the more puerile throes of capitalism. So, it looks like I won’t get my Christmas wish after all. Then again, I do have Brother is to Son, which is a lot like Christmas: exhaustive but stirring, and packaged in a red and green theme.