Songs of experience

by Gabriel Shapiro

Daniel Smith doesn’t have the most accessible vocal style in rock music today. His arrangements are also angular, chaotic and sometimes confusing. And when it comes to lyrics, his almost apocalyptic, Blakean rambles are certainly not what most people look for from a pop artist.

But for all that, Smith and his band, the Danielson Famile, make some of the most interesting songs around. The Famile consists of Smith, four of his siblings, his wife and a few other associated artists. The band is going by the appellation “Br. Danielson” for their new album “Brother is to Son,” but those familiar with this incredibly strange music will recognize the same Danielson Famile genius at work as on previous albums.

Smith and the Famile belong to that wide world of Christian music that doesn’t mesh well with degraded, repetitious, over-produced John Tesh-style fakery. These are Jesus freaks with a strong emphasis on “freaks.” Like the Rastafarian reggae musicians of Jamaica, Smith and company use their music to promote a faith that is deeply personal, with all of the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies that the word implies. Because of the unflagging efforts of right-wing Christian marketing teams, Americans remain convinced that Christian music must equal either traditional hymns or treacly, anti-intellectual droning of hallelujahs without end.

But Danielson is just as Christian (if not more so) than those slick Nashville and Southern California tricksters. When Smith sings, “All they did was sing how you healed them all / Prove it to me now get down from the cross” there is a profound sense of questioning and questing that is utterly absent from mainstream Christian rock.

Smith’s high-pitched keening, combined with everything-but-the-kitchen-sink instrumentation makes for a sound that is also far more complex on a musical level than either Christian rock or most of the secular bands that Danielson often tours with. The hard-strummed acoustic guitars give many of the songs a feel that has engendered many comparisons to campfire numbers.

In fact, when the group does acknowledge these roots, it adds a little tweak here and there to make sure we haven’t nodded off in our sleeping bags. On the “Tri-Danielson” album, Smith’s version of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” includes lines like, “He’s got the flunkies and the junkies in His hands.” Much truer to the spirit of the biblical Jesus of course, but a thousand years away from the corrupt holy rollers who promise to pray for a new sport utility vehicle for each of their flocks this Sunday.

On the current album, Smith sings, “I feel held back and frustrated, insecure and I’m annoyed” on a song called “Hammers Sitting Still.” It’s a song that could be sung by any loving, troubled carpenter anywhere. But if that one carpenter really existed, and lived the life we’ve been told he did, this is the song that he might like most of all.