Review : Danielson - The Best of Gloucester County
PitchforkDaniel Smith is the patriarch of the Danielson Famile, a longstanding collaborator and pal to Sufjan Stevens, and the former inhabitant of a nine-foot tall, handmade, fruit-bearing tree suit. He's also something of an enigma, aesthetically-speaking, and it's easy to get distracted by Smith's oddball presentation: There are costumes (besides the tree, he's wiggled into a nurse's uniform, heart-shaped blinders, and a sad, Willy Loman-esque Bible salesman suit), Christian ideology, plenty of high, unhinged bleating, and family-band mystique. His work has never been especially easy to categorize ("This man in a tree suit is making high-concept outsider art!" vs. "These are pretty great pop songs written by a dad from New Jersey!"), but genre is an especially fluid thing these days, and on The Best of Gloucester County, his eighth full-length, Smith successfully nods to a variety of influences-- from Daniel Johnston to Genesis-- while still retaining his particular singularity. Call it Daniel-Smith-rock.
2006's Ships, Smith's last release, saw him employing a vast cabal of artists, pals, and players, but the roster for Gloucester County is a lot leaner, and it feels like more of a solo record than nearly anything else Smith has done (Megan, Rachel, and Elin Smith contribute vocals, but otherwise no Famile members are expressly credited). It's not that he doesn't have help: An expert three-man horn section (Michael Cemprola, Jon Rees, and Paul Arbogast), a solid band (including Sufjan Stevens on banjo and vocals), and guest turns from Jens Lekman, Emil Nikolaisen of Serena-Maneesh, Chris Cohen of Cryptacize, and Mark Shippy of US Maple all bolster Smith's songs, adding a layer of muscle. But the band's ultimate function is to provide a taut and compelling counterpoint to Smith's pipes, which are as wild as ever: Here, the singing is the thing, and Smith's voice is stronger and more elastic than ever before. He's become a little less reliant on screeches and yelps, but his vocals are still riddled with idiosyncrasies, and the disparity between the singing and the instrumentation (which is tight and aggressive) keeps his songs consistently tense and interesting.
Some tracks belie a marked stylistic shift from alt-folk to full-on pysch-- like the spacey freakout "Hovering Above That Hill", which consists mostly of mesmeric guitar diddling, effects, and off-mic yelling. "This Day Is a Loaf" is more classic Danielson, a folksy, boisterous song about working ("Worry creeps in, like a thief from the nighttime," Smith sings, and artists everywhere commiserate). As wild as a Danielson record can get, his compositions are always meticulously recorded and arranged, and his work ethic is palpable on every track-- it's not that these songs feel over-labored, exactly (although they certainly don't seem spontaneous), it's that it's easy to hear all the ways in which Smith is consumed by his work....full text
TinymixtapesDaniel Smith doesn't make albums you can just put on and forget about, and Best of Gloucester County is no exception. It’s both profound and inane, noisy, and not infrequently shrill. If there’s one thing ringleader Smith understands, it’s that the best music demands reaction as much as reflection. So he speaks your language, taking the mundane lexicon of growing up — lawnmowers, neighbors, and pajamas all make appearances here — and subsuming them beneath erratic arrangements and the wild cadences of an evangelist. Like the rest of the Danielson discography, Gloucester County is challenging listening, retaining only the faintest of musical links to the conventions of ordinary songwriterdom. And shit, does this guy have fans?
Evidently yes. Sufjan Stevens’ banjo playing and Rick Moody’s press release make for pretty unassailable indie credentials. Gloucester County is the first Danielson release in five years, and it feels more contained and arranged than their earlier albums. On “Grow Up,” Smith reflects on the changes in his life since then: “My social life’s gone/ And I’m mowing my lawn/ When I should be up on that stage/ With the glitz and my rage.” It’s kind of funny to hear laments over lost youth from a musician I’ve always thought had a wonderfully strange paternal quality. Smith curates his own Sounds Familyre label, which showcases some of the most interesting Christian music out there. And reports from the Danielson Familie’s early performances characterize him as a manic ringleader.
Smith sure has lots of crazy ideas about God and religion. So when he opens “the Book of Daniel” on the first track, is he just invocating? Deconstructing references to other literature can be intellectually dodgy. It can add new dimension to a creative work or be the critical equivalent of reading tealeaves. Since there’s definitely a self-mythologizing aspect to Danielson (see: band name), let’s run with the reference a bit. When it’s taught to kids, the biblical book of Daniel is usually a lesson in faithfulness: trust in the Lord, and he’ll save you from the lion’s den, etc. Sunday School teachers often overlook the fact that, in addition to pacifying lions, Daniel’s real talent was interpreting dreams and having apocalyptic visions. The passage has been grist for the likes of Johnny Cash (“Belshazzar”), and the bits about kingdoms built on sand have endured too. On Gloucester County, Smith arranges the icons of his childhood into an apocalyptic vision of his own....full text
UglyrumorAs indie pop’s premier synthesizer of gospel and quirky folk music, Brother Daniel Smith has led a career as strange and wonderful as the music itself. Whether he’s recruiting members of his actual family for his musical “Famile” or assembling several like-minded oddballs for his ambitious Ships album, Smith is a unique creative spirit through and through. It’s a little disarming that Smith’s latest release under the Danielson moniker is a pretty straightforward listen. Then again, this is pop music on Smith’s terms, which are still suitably far from even approaching the mainstream. Best Of Gloucester County employs a more refined lineup of musicians, a possible factor in the streamlining of Smith’s outsider tendencies. The album also features some darn catchy melodies and humorous lyrics, which certainly don’t hurt.
Smith’s trademark falsetto warble jaunts playfully around “People’s Partay,” a time-skipping ode to a pretty great-sounding block party. A few other similarly sprightly tunes also stand out, such as “Lil Norge” (which features Jens Lekman and Smith’s wife Elin asking “can we be friends?”) and the classic rock-ripping “But I Don’t Wanna Sing About Guitars.” The opener, “Complimentary Dismemberment Insurance,” makes mention of the book of Daniel; at once a biblical and possibly autobiographical reference. This blurring of content carries on in the number of ballads and mid-tempo tunes. Those mostly come in the album’s second half, with “You Sleep Good Now” and “Denominator Bruise” being giving some somber counterpoint to the earlier exuberance. On Best Of Gloucester County, the Famile might have scaled back a bit, but they haven’t skimped on the delightful weirdness that has endeared them to us. Let’s face it: we’re all members of the Famile....full text
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