Register Sunday | June 24 | 2018

The Danielson Famile

A look at the New Jersey band's most recent release

Question: Can an artistic statement of serious faith come out of a trumpet made to sound like a wet fart?

Answer: Probably. (Sound of wet fart)

In the opening seconds of Danielson’s current single, “Did I Step on Your Trumpet?” a lone horn sets the rhythm of what becomes a bouncy, chorale-led meditation on identity and self-respect: “Pleasing people / Is so predictable / We love you now / Then stab you how many / Times …” Guitar and glockenspiel and backbeat chug forward with great optimism, matched by a female chorus reassuring the listener that “Pappa is so mighty pleased with thee.” In the space of three minutes, the traditional psalmic command to “make a joyful noise” is fulfilled, replete with a funny-sounding trumpet.

The Danielson Famile is a musical collective from New Jersey that is grounded—sometimes literally—in the infectious religious faith of its leader, Daniel Smith. The Christianity of Daniel and his extended Danielson Famile is the sort of sunny-hearted, socially conscious spirit of human fellowship that came out of the huggable Jesus movement of the 1970s. The band began as Daniel Smith’s senior project at Rutgers University—which may be why it deals with issues—the weight of belief, one’s duty to others, etc.—normally found in scripture, existential philosophy or the primary sources of a college thesis. Not since early Pink Floyd has such an offbeat and mischievous spirit illuminated the Big Questions.

The songs on Ships, Danielson’s latest full-length release, are equal parts faith and lunacy, and often sound like a high-school musical or a slightly unhinged family reunion: scrapey  folk guitars, banjo cousins, shouts and screams, Daniel’s exploding falsetto. Everyone is invited, naturally, no matter their level of expertise. At one point, members of the noise-rock trio Deerhoof show up and fight over available instruments with big-band positivist Sufjan Stevens, who gets to play oboe. The resulting music is blindingly sincere. Ships is a reaction against the waves of quasi-professionalism that parade across television and pop music with the care and subtlety of televangelism.

True faith, after all, is unsanitized and awkward—an expression of what we’d like to be, in the form of what we actually are. Honesty is everywhere on Ships: “And I pray that all your hopes / And dreams / Will / Fall in / Your place,” goes the outro, followed by a crashing communal shout of “Thanks, thanks, thanks!” Love thyself, Daniel keeps saying, in whatever goofy form you want, and “Pappa” will be mighty pleased.