Thank God for Steve Albini, and what comes after

Delivering us from the evils of bland Christian pop: Daniel Smith, far left, plys the secular waters of indie rock with and without his family.

Daniel Smith says the goal of Danielson music is to take him “somewhere I haven’t been before.” That his latest disc — and some say his masterpiece — is called Ships seems therefore apropos.

But like all things Danielson — and that includes all the various incarnations: Tri-Danielson, Brother Danielson, Danielson Famile and Danielship — there’s more to Ships than initially greets the ear. What else would you expect from an overtly Christian act plying the secular waters of indie rock?

“We’re making music that, while it has immediate qualities, you’re going to get more out of it if you put more into it,” Smith says.

And there are plenty of musical and philosophical ideas here to gnaw on. Ships isn’t merely Smith’s investigation of the life journey we’ve all embarked upon — it’s an examination of what he calls the “majestic suffix,” the “-ship” that turns singular nouns into communities (fellow, friend, kin, etc.) — just as a vessel takes individuals and gives them, as a collective whole, a common destination.

“It’s really about relationships,” says Smith of his seventh full-length. “It came out of a fascination with the words ‘son-ship’ and ‘daughter-ship,’ and it’s about identity and our connection to each other, as well as our maker. From the beginning, Danielson has been about me writing these songs alone — that’s half the process — then presenting them to the people around me.”

That inclusive method has been at the core of Smith’s music-making since his 1995 senior-thesis project at Rutgers, which he recorded with his four younger siblings — ranging in age from 11 to 20 at the time — as his backing band. A Prayer For Every Hour marked the first of four records put out by the Christian label Tooth & Nail during the late ’90s. But as one biographer has noted, Danielson is a Christian band in the same sense that “Flannery O’Connor was a Christian writer.” Belying the straightforward message of salvation at the heart of the music, Danielson’s quirky vision and unorthodox musicality — a carnival of influences from psychedelic Syd Barrett and Sonic Youth dissonance to Camper Van Beethoven raga-folk and call-and-response gospel — has never been embraced by contemporary-Christian-music outlets. Tooth & Nail, a label more known for its emo and punk acts, was mostly baffled by Danielson and never gave the records meaningful support.

The ultimate joyful noise

So Danielson developed a cult following in the indie underground. Influenced by esteemed producer and fellow New Jersey-ite Kramer (Galaxie 500, Low, Palace Brothers), the group’s follow-up records — Alpha, Omega and Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Choppin’ Block — won them hosannas from Village Voice, the New York Times and Spin magazine, among others. While obviously operating outside the secular realm, Smith found he shared an adventurous musical spirit more in keeping with sonic alchemists in the indie-rock camp — think Animal Collective, the Fiery Furnaces or Akron/Family — than with the bland faith-based pop of Michael W. Smith and his ilk.

Daniel also says he feels “very connected” to the artist-first business model that characterizes most independent labels. With that in mind, Danielson signed with Indiana-based Secretly Canadian in 2001.

Their first record for the new label was Fetch the Compass Kids, produced by Steve Albini. Danielson’s most accessible record to that point, it marked another sonic leap forward while bringing the communal aspect of the band into greater focus. By now Danielson was generating a slightly bigger buzz, in part because of their live shows. Smith’s background in visual arts and the family’s ever-growing number of contributors — now including wives and friends — made Danielson gigs way more spectacle than concert. The band dressed in white, personalized nurse’s and doctor’s garb as a symbol of the healing powers of the message and the medium; Smith still plays in a 9-foot papier-mache tree costume at solo gigs (the six-piece band has designed new uniforms for the Ships tour).

The visual ideas came from “seeing it all as solid expression, and as a music fan, just being bored seeing bands that looked like they didn’t even want to be on stage,” says Smith, who cites the Velvet Underground’s work with Andy Warhol as an influence. “Mostly they have symbolic value.”

Shortly after Fetch the Compass, filmmaker J.L. Aronson began chronicling the band for his recently released documentary, Danielson: A Family Movie. The film portrays Smith’s struggles to survive artistically as his siblings assume their own responsibilities (college, families); the anomaly of a Christian band in the secular world of indie rock (a classic moment sees the family offering up thanks to the Lord for Albini); and the battle for artistic integrity. Contrasting clips from the Danielson Famile’s earliest, school-pageant-like shows with their appearances at rock festivals and industry showcases, the film accurately depicts Danielson’s communal approach to music-making (Smith is even shown mentoring a then-little-known fellow Christian artist, Sufjan Stevens), as well as the solitary process of creation.

Which brings us back to Ships‘ main conceit. Smith recorded Brother Is to Son, nominally a solo record, under the Brother Danielson moniker in 2004. Of course, the record included key contributions from the Famile and friends, and when it came time for the next record, Smith dusted off the Danielson moniker and decided to pay tribute to all those who had helped him in the past, as well as to those whom he’d wanted to work with but hadn’t yet. With siblings and friends (like long-time collaborator Chris Palladino and Stevens) in tow, Smith enlisted a total of 34 others, including members of Deerhoof, Serena Maneesh, Why?, and Half-handed Cloud, to help realize his communal dream and create Ships‘ deliriously joyous cacophony.

“I wanted them to come up with stuff off the top of their heads, but at the same time, a lot of the orchestrations were sketched out on sheet music,” Smith says of the project, which has also resulted in a series of 7-inch releases. “So it was finding a balance between the two — which is kind of what Ships is all about anyway.”

[John Schacht is a freelance music writer whose work appears in Harp, Paste, All Music Guide and several weeklies.]

Danielson plays the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Thursday, July 13, with Neil Hamburger and the May Family Reunion. 8:30 p.m. $8. 232-5800.

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