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Artist: Danielson
Label: Secretly Canadian 
Time: 11 tracks/42:17

A long time ago in a land far, far away, there was a young man named Daniel Smith. He had a vision of music, staging, and costuming which would combine to demonstrate the importance of his faith and family to who he was. He titled his thesis A Prayer For Every Hour and created a strange yet powerful 24-track debut album.

That first album is perhaps the right place to start when discussing Smith's latest production. For this is the first album since that initial album to bear the sole name "Danielson" on the spine. But unlike his debut disc from eleven years ago, this newest album is much more musically polished, much more listenable, than that first effort was.

For those of you who are not familiar with Danielson, a word of explanation is in order. Danielson is an ever-shifting group of individuals who play strangely structured, off-kilter, (sometimes off-tune!) deeply Christian music. Instrumentation consists of various things--guitar, bass, banjo, bells, piano, drums, handclaps, and such. There are three distinct groups within the Danielson universe, as explored on the Tri-Danielson double album. There is Brother Danielson, the Danielson Famile, and Danielsonship. Of these three, Brother Danielson is the most folksy, essentially a solo act with backing artists (for live shows, this version generally involves Smith inside a 9-foot papier maché tree); Danielson Famile is, as the name suggests, Daniel Smith and his extended family making music; and Danielsonship has somewhat of an arena/prog rock ethos, consisting of the Famile plus a host of other musicians.

It is also worth noting that either you 'get' Danielson's music or you don't. Perhaps the best way of getting a feel of this particular album is by listening to the first single from the album, "Did I Step on your Trumpet?" which Secretly Canadian has made available as an mp3 here:

Daniel Smith's voice is not nearly as forced on this album as it has been in the past. He sounds more relaxed, vocally. The playing is tight and tightly orchestrated. It struck me, listening to this album, that this is perhaps the best arranged and produced album for Danielson in its various incarnations. In my opinion, the only album which it is comparable to is Tell Another Joke At the Ol' Choppin' Block, which, until this album, was my favorite of the Danielson releases. Smith's work as producer for other groups and artists such as Soul-Junk and Sufjan Stevens has resulted in more structure and tunefulness in this most recent project.

The title here is important. Entitled Ships, it explores many of the musical relationships which have emerged over Smith's decade-long involvement in the alternative music universe. Musically, it is a Danielsonship album, with electric guitars filling in sonic spaces rarely explored in previous albums. The album even overflowed its banks, as it were, into three related 7-inch records produced by Steve Albini, Kramer and Christian Pallandino. Guest artists involved with the album include Sufjan Stevens, Deerhoof, Half-Handed Cloud, Jon from Soul-Junk, and many, many others. Ships is a celebration of the relationships which God has given Smith through his musical career. And there really is a note of celebration and thanksgiving which permeates the entire album, a sense of wonder at God's grace.

One of the more memorable tracks for me was the aforementioned single. It highlights well the interplay between Daniel Smith and his sisters, vocally. "Cast It At The Setting Sail" has possibly the most catchy tune that Smith has yet committed to tape, kind of like something Sufjan Stevens would write, only twisted about 70 degrees. Lyrically, it strikes me as a reminder that God has freed us to cast all our sins and cares on Him and they are removed, as far as east is from west--hence, the setting sail. "My Lion Sleep Tonight" is a beautiful retelling of the parable of the prodigal son. "Five Stars and Two Thumbs Up" is the closing track, a song thanking the collaborators of the album and the listeners for making it all worthwhile. THe other tracks are also very good, if not as standout as these four are.

As I said earlier, either you get Danielson or you don't. His singing style, though not as falsetto-reliant as it has been in the past, is still kind of squeaky and nasal. The tunes do go places where nice, self-respecting tunes would not go. Not every chord is resolved. Not every layer works perfectly with every other layer. There are times when it seems there are several different key signatures are coexisting in the arrangements. This album reflects very strongly the duality which every Christian has of being justified in Christ and yet still becoming the person whom God created them to be--the Romans 7 conundrum lives large in this music.

This is one of the best albums I have heard yet this year. If you like music that challenges your sensibilities yet edifies your faith, I would recommend this one. In the words of the closing track of the album, "Thank you/For setting all aside/To treat me to some time."

Treat this album to some time. If you do, I doubt very much that you'll be bored. And you might just find yourself refreshed in the wonder of God's grace.

Alex Klages



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