Danielson

Ships

(Sounds Familyre/Secretly Canadian; 2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 4 May 2006

What’s this “twee” label, if not the apotheosis of cute? It is fragile but grand, undeniably rapturous; it’s impugned with quaintness, a fey wholesomeness, with the saccharine succor of encephalitic headaches; it’s kitsch, really, a deluge of great minds gelling to create something disarmingly childish; what’s cute, if not childishness made flesh? If we band together, one squeaky voice for all and all for one xylophone, drawing our world in sunset strokes, does that mean that Cuddlecore shall be our name and naiveté our mantra? Surely, all that smile do not enjoy Architecture in Helsinki and those that find comfort in numbers do not have to like the Polyphonic Spree. Even so: twee begets cuteness, cuteness begets childishness, childishness begets naiveté, and so on. Or is it the other way around?

Cryptic assumptions and monastic sermons do not a pop album make. The 5 Stages of Dealing With Danielson end with acceptance, begin with denial and then anger. Know what I mean?

*****

Daniel Smith, his brothers and sisters, Chris Palladino, and 34 others — Sufjan, Deerhoof, Serena Maneesh, Why?, Half-handed Cloud, Lenny Smith, Soul-junk, etc. —, have spent the past two years crafting this, the true third corner to Tri-Danielson, a glowing bottle of Jesus Juice to smash over the hull of a new day. Smith’s returned to his original moniker and has taken the suffix “-ship” at its most emblematic, opening up the disarming sound of the Famile to as many accessible venues as possible. But wait! This is no deprecation of virtue in our young Brother, no thwarting of spiritual purity. Ships is an acceptance and an invitation, a backwards investment. Putting in more than he can manage to focus his sound. And fudge me, does it ever pay off.

Perhaps in lazier times, Smith and the Famile could have been classified as positively twee. Their syncopated drums, vivacious and prominent background vocals, chimes and bells, their unlimited lease on marching band stock, the sprawling song structures, and, Lord, that voice seemed a raw testament to imagination and immature musicianship. The Christian themes never balked, and, although God and Jesus were mostly never named, the spiritual interest of the music, more often than not, emptied on the side of esoteric and lusterless proselytizing. Of course, in retrospect, the lyrics were never that flippant, tending more towards tiring truth, and, much like our critical crux, Sufjan Stevens, Smith’s words were respectful but cathartic. It wasn’t the Christianity that necessarily undermined the Famile — although that could easily spawn stereotypes —, it was the nurse outfits, the Playskool tree costume that pinned Dan into place, the euphony and rollicking happiness, the unbridled joyful noise.

Let me take a step back. This, Ships, is the Danielson collective’s 7th LP, the day of rest in a timeline that stretches back to A Prayer For Every Hour, Daniel Smith’s 1996 Rutgers University senior thesis project. The album found home on the overtly Christian label, Tooth & Nail, which got the Famile playing at Cornerstone and invited, if anything, an unhindered exploration of Christian subject matter. When three more albums filled the label’s ranks, including the ambitious first and second volumes of the Tri-Danielson!!! Project, the band had already wandered from their shallow niche. They didn’t really fit on the label, their rambunctious pop noise an oddity among labelmates and their cautious but effervescent credo a better fit with secular backing. So, Secretly Canadian became their new home and Steve Albini their new producer. Fetch the Compass Kids (2001), in turn, exercised a glut of new freedom and comfortableness, warming the blueprint for Smith’s “solo” album. The 2004 Brother Is To Son seemed a watermark, a point at which a magnificent musician, with no lack of complexity, indulged every shrieking whim.

Undeniably, the Danielson Famile has a long record of ostracism. Oh yeah? Take your pick from the following scenarios: 1) Too strange and unnerving for conservative laymen and CCM archetypes alike, the Famile is cornered into absurdity; 2) Christian witnessing, while vague and happily non-confrontational, never fails to make the indie club crowd embarrassed, and gives smarmy cynics an impetus for jest followed by debate; 3) The Famile’s giddy aesthetic, and even giddier music, begs for rote adjectives like “childish” and for dunderheaded categories like twee.

Twee. Frankly, Ships is not twee because it isn’t dainty. It isn’t quaint because it isn’t elegant or old-fashioned. And Danielson’s newest opus isn’t childish because (unroll the modifiers that detail wide eyes and melodramatic Kairos retreats, please wear them thin) it isn’t fucking naïve.

*****

In J.L. Aronson’s recently released documentary, Danielson: A Family Movie, Daniel Smith is shown in one scene mid-production, reserved but obviously flustered, slaving over Brother Is To Son in the basement studio he built in his parent’s house. This is the same studio, we learn, where Sufjan’s Seven Swans was recorded. As Smith returns to a semi-familiar vocal line over and over, attempting to lay down the perfect screech, his mundane shots are interspersed with graphically gaudy accounts of Sufjan’s rise to fame. Surrounded by Illinoisemakers and all manner of press, Stevens seems the consummate leader, the artist fueled on and influential to hamlets of creativity. Smith, instead, is alone, tired, and burdened by meticulousness. The dichotomy is unexpected, especially in the midst of a story about family and community, but illuminating. Eventually, Aronson details, the Danielson conglomeration does pare down to one man, a person who takes no credit for his skill, instead channeling all praise and concern to God.

Maybe I’m imagining this fantasy of Danielson as the ultimate victim. Prognostications of Ships being pinioned as childish may, in light of oncoming reviews, press, and tours, prove me a martyr, and Dan Smith not the Don Quixote I admire him to be. Ah well; the issues Dan writes about, as simple and broad as they may appear, are anything but naïve. Take “When It Comes To You I’m Lazy,” a quiet, slow burn of echoed acoustic guitar and melodica, in which Smith laments, “Friends, moving mountains / They pass us by / For me, things take time...” Looking to his five year-old daughter, Smith then moans, “I want to be just like you, and I / I want to be free on my insides.” He’s jealous of his daughter’s innocence and ashamed of his own selfishness. He continues, comparing his role as father to his relationship with God as a son, knowing that the distance forced between both actors is inevitable, but not unconquerable.

But really, the truths Smith reluctantly uncovers are not exactly revelatory. “Bloodbook On The Halfshell” is a personalized and self-deprecating condemnation of academia. “Did I Step On Your Trumpet” is about stepping on a trumpet, killing a parrot, and probably forgiveness. “Five Stars And Two Thumbs Up” is pretty self-explanatory and titularly effusive. Sometimes, Smith even aimlessly shifts from one major theme to another, doing little, for example, to keep an account of school days dread in “He Who Flattened Your Flame” from slipping into swaths of Justice-talk. My point is that while the music of Ships is celebratory and manic, while the lyrics are ostensibly simple-minded, Smith’s intentions drip with doubt, humility, and struggle. And just because the Boy Least Likely To croons about monsters and guns does not put Danielson in the same boat.

*****

Back we are to the image of the “ship,” the suffix and vessel, and the fork at which all of Ships' contradictions become clear (or at least apparent). The album opens, “Before our time upon a noun, there stood still a ship / She turns lines, transforms words, to be more than they are when they / Are alone, on their own, pointing to no one,” and then a barrage of falsetto, female vocals, and xylophone gets us good’n’submerged. The idea’s relatively easy to muster: “-ship,” when added to the end of a word (friend, relation, fellow, and so on…), manifests a community and focus in the original word’s intent, just as an actual ship accumulates travelers from all walks of life into a singular path to a mutual destination. Can’t argue that this is what’s going on with the album. 34 artists from all different backgrounds gather, unified by their affection for the Famile, to help him develop a communal attitude throughout very personal ideas.

Surprisingly, then, that the eleven tracks here are the most concise, effortless, and melodically conspicuous songs to come out of the band’s camp. Lead single “Did I Step On Your Trumpet” catches call-and-response clichés between Smith, his wife (Elin), and his sisters (Megan Slaboda and Rachel Galloway), scrapping into a fat, beautiful chorus. “Time That Bald Sexton” follows an identical method, using staccato rhythms of plucked arpeggios and chimes as tension before pummeling, horned choruses. Sure, the Wolfs or Emil Nikolaisen could just be credited for the incredible clarity of these recordings, for the pitch perfect balance between Smith’s caterwauling and the heft of such immense instrumentation, for the almost predictable logic to the album’s sequencing where before Danielson LPs felt either too long or too heavy, but to limit the beauty of the thing to guest producers is to ignore that trudging image of Dan alone, before his monitor, with his mouse.

“All my ships sailing the nation / I finally found who I am made out to be,” Smith sings before another unassailable “Trumpet” chorus, and it’s not hard to believe him. The most obvious thing about Ships is its pervasion of contradiction. Songs about unity, friends, and family result in sharp cynosures and intensely personal questions. Unflagging optimism and inclusive, communal attitudes toward songwriting trip over missives of individual spiritual malaise. Big brassy bleating pleads to be taken seriously. Ships is honed but exploratory, tight while shambling, hugely accessible while weird and complicated, economic but sprawling, and so on, spiraling in on itself until at the apex of the cone sits one sandy-haired man and his faith.

The most fascinating development in Ships, in regards to Danielson’s canon, is that its arrangements no longer revel in contradiction to grab the listener and push the track. Whereas Brother Is To Son appropriately packed instrument upon instrument, trash can into trash bin, tossing out Russian dolls to be torn apart, Ships is restrained, its arsenal minimized. “Cast It At The Setting Sail,” a lock-step with layered drum stomps, is bedded with the black noise of partying in the adjoining room, but takes the edge off an incessantly climbing group chorus by surrounding it with playful, airy stanzas. “Bloodback On The Halfshell” doubles its pace within ten seconds, solid bass skip to fingersnaps between to a revolving acoustic half-riff between that, and quickly the tone falls from contentment to frustration. By the time its bridge convulses in Daniel’s porcine paroxysm, the arrangement’s steady incline is disorienting. Then trusted. Longer suites, like the surging “Kids Pushing Kids” and intrinsically divisive “Two Sitting Ducks,” course rabidly through innumerable sections, wheezing ambience and stuttered chaos alike, only to develop a thick, organic flow. You won’t believe it, but “Ducks” does manage to turn out pretty.

As opposed to the Famile’s first six records, it seems that limbs aren’t fighting anymore. Soft is no longer the only opposite to loud, and vice versa. Moreso, the instruments throughout are relatively uniform: acoustic and electric guitars, prominent percussion, a rare flute or trumpet, a demure synth or melodica line, and a menagerie of vocal howls, ska-tongue-flapping, and snickering joints. Contradiction exists in balefuls here, as I’ve said, but not in the instruments themselves, and that allows a mood of natural ease to write a new side to Danielson’s work.

And it makes sense. It does. Although contradictions in theme and aesthetic contradict the actual arrangement of the music, the molten conflagration never ends up a deal breaker. More like a way to get absorbed.

*****

Alas. It works for me, at least.

Ships means a lot to me. A vague admission, I know. But, simply put, with all of the challenges this album presents, Ships still continues to fill me with glee. In fact, I can’t even recall the last album that actually persuaded me to be happy, an album so full of hope and devotion and palpable love that it convinced me cheering up was as easy as an ineffable, osmotic transfer. Eh. Remain in Light, probably.

And still, I defend Danielson against arguments that don’t exist. “His voice is a tool for the higher register, a scalpel to cut through preexisting notions of conviction in Contemporary Christian Music!” I warn listeners in warped riddles. “With every listen, I find something new. What’s love, if not a challenge?” And I drag others unwillingly into the fold. “Once you get over the initial miasma of his voice, the rest is crystal clear. You may not get it, but you have to try. ‘Go ahead, punch through the brittle rind.’ And I end up talking to myself, hoping others catch on to all the work I put into this music. ‘Because even I don’t like the intro to “Sitting Ducks,” that unholy intercourse between flute and harrowing voice. Plus, I’m sick of how ballads are interchanged with beefier numbers almost as a matter of formula. Every other song. It makes the beginning seem frontloaded and the last song a hurried gimmick.’ But they actually THANK you. It’s great! ‘Well. How far can I expect everyone’s patience to go?’ Up your butt, how’s that?” And it keeps me busy for a time.

Forever trying to balance the internal debate with the lack of external, somehow sopping up an ebullient happiness from such a mess, I’ve found that Ships drives me infernally inward. Danielson’s tonsuring me, but not stopping at the crown of my head, until my naked body’s a pale moebius strip, a disgusting artifact to turn off others to Ships, maybe sending them into the same tizzy. Or maybe they know better. The genesis flips back on itself, and I find myself, again, arguing that, for God’s sake, this isn’t twee and, for my sake, it isn’t childish.