The Phantom Tollbooth
 April 1999 Pick of the Month

Artist:  Tri-Danielson
Label: Tooth and Nail
Length:  42:46 / 12 songs
Are you tired of your non-Christian and even some of your, ahem, enlightened Christian friends telling you that all music of a distinctive Christian persuasion is derivative and boring? You may have even heard someone say something like, "Christian musicians just imitate the world. They never do anything new!" Here is the solution: slap a Tri-Danielson disc in and you are sure to shut them up for good. Tri-Danielson defines unique so well, in fact, that they should have exclusive rights to the term. "What is Tri-Danielson?" Unique. "Oh, well, what's so special about them?" They're unique. "Well, where do you file it?" Under Unique.
Who are Tri-Danielson and what makes them so unique? The principle song-writer and lead vocalist's birth name is Daniel Smith. He is in his mid-twenties and a graduate of Rutgers University, where his first album, 1995's A Prayer for Every Hour, was also his successful senior thesis project. He got an A. The most distinguishing characteristic of Daniel's performing persona is his legendary high-pitched squeaky voice, like a modern day Mickey Mouse. Some have called it an acquired taste, which is certainly true, but anyone nurtured on a diverse diet of Talking Heads, Devo and The Pixies will be adequately prepared and even (possibly) pleased with the bizarreness of his vocal timbre.
The rest of the Tri-Danielson band is comprised of his younger Smith siblings who play everything from flutes, xylophones, drums, and other percussions. Honorary family-member, Chris Palladino is the keyboardist. They've released two other albums under the moniker Danielson Familie, and this is their second release under the new name. Together they have created a sound that is completely and utterly...okay, I won't say it this time. If Samuel Beckett were writing musicals today, he might sound something like this: dramatic, deceptively simple, and cheerfully bizarre. Imagine a group of WW2 German Expressionists sold-out to Jesus and singing gospel folk tunes with quirky but insightfully profound lyrics under a wave of bouncy, infectious percussion. Ta da!
To make sense of the name Tri-Danielson, a little explanation and history is helpful. Basically, the name stems from the band's three different performing forms. The most basic form is Brother Daniel Smith himself, who plays a solo guitar while encased in a nine-foot tall paper-mache tree. In this form, the songs are the most stripped (more bark than bite). Although family members may accompany Daniel in this format, their participation is usually and mostly reserved for the second incarnation, Danielson Familie. Adding flute, violin, banjo, bass, and trombone parts into the mix, the Danielson Familie has a fuller, more complex sound. They describe it as acoustic, and-clapping gospel, which only begins to define their, ah, uniqueness, which is further distinguished by the personalized doctors' and nurses' uniforms they wear in concert as "a visual reminder of the healing taking place." If you have never seen this configuration in concert, be prepared for a jaw-dropping experience. The third incarnation has been christened Danielsonship, and is the full-blown rock and roll unit with the biggest sound created with the help of miscellaneous friends. This album, like its predecessor Alpha, consists of a collection of four to five songs in each of the three distinct styles.
The distinction between the three forms is made most apparent by the three-fold suite "Deeper than Our Gov't," performed successively by each incarnation. The first part begins with the sounds of a chirping electronic cricket that continues throughout, and Daniel gently strumming the guitar and singing peacefully, accompanied only by his sisters on brief harmony bits. The second part picks up energy by adding drums and other effects to the mix. The final part of the trilogy is an all out, no holds barred, multi-instrumental and vocal crescendo. In each of the consecutive parts, the song's lyrics build upon central themes of God's love, with references to "just whom lies in that tomb," and a strong exhortation for the Church to forego individualism and selfishness for the more holy communal spirit that is only found through Christ:

         Cling onto the Son of Man
         And all those creepies be gone.
         Dad forgave and when we hit your spot
         give thanx for that olde rugged cross.
         Tis we, not me.
         Welcome ‘em home,
         It's new every morn.
         Tis we, tis we, tis we not me."
This latest disc, Omega not only compares favorably with Alpha, but really needs to be viewed as a companion piece. Both have similar art work, and many of the songs were recorded at the same time, but the total time for both discs excludes them from being presented as a single unit. To make the complementary counterpart point more clear, however, Omega begins literally where the other one leaves off, with the first song beginning at track fourteen. Of the two discs, Omega is far less full of abrasive and abrupt material like Alpha's "Body English" song. Although there are no delightful antiphonal tone poems like "Flesh" or whimsical dramas like "Potty Mouth" on Omega, the overall sound shows a kinder and gentler side of Tri-Danielson that should prove to be even more accessible to the masses. Brother Daniel also experiments vocally, adopting whispers and more straight-forward approaches in addition to his signature screech. This will surely please would-be fans who have cited his vocals as their only objection to enjoying Danielson in the past. In the tradition of former songs like "Rubbernecker," there are plenty of humorous yet discerning offerings, like "Failing a Test Falling in Love:"
         Is it a quiz?  No, it's a test.
         Oh, um, well, um, oh...

Expanding on Alpha's themes, "Thanx to Noah" articulately reminds us that all human beings regardless of ethnic heritage are related and "red on the inside." "The Nose Knows," like "Between the Lines of the Scout Signs," encourages friendly speech. "Don't You Be the Judge" is a sing-along number that not only reminds us not to judge each other, but who the real judge is. "Idiot Boksen" laments children's preoccupation with TV instead of more virtuous activities. Due to Daniel's distinctive vocal delivery and the oddity of the overall musical construction, all these pertinent messages are delivered in a fashion that completely disarms the listener, breaking down barriers that leave the soul open and receptive.
Tri-Danielson's ambitious mission (and I do believe they would call it a mission) is not merely to entertain, although they certainly do that as well. Their holy goal is to present their atypical music as a means for God to heal wounded hearts and souls in search of God's peace, something which I suspect is highly likely given my experience with their music. Their prayer is: "Holy Father, Sweet Jesus, thank you for your goodness, your peace, your Holy Spirit that comes out of the two of you. We love you, we love you, we love you!!! Prepare the way for these songs and please heal the willing and change the minds of the unwilling." Amen.
Steven Stuart Baldwin   (3/24/99)

Like fine wine or escargot, the Danielsons are definitely an acquired taste. While Omega lacks the heights of Alpha's "Potty Mouth," there is still plenty to savor here. "Idiot Boksen," "Failing a Test=Falling in Love," and "Thanx to Noah" are just a few of the winners. There's also a live hidden track of "He's got the Whole World in His Hand" done Danielson style. Don't make a mistake in thinking that because of the high-pitched squeaky voice these songs are for kids--each song has a serious message.  Since this does pick-up where Alpha left off, if you are new to the Danielsons, I'd start with Alpha. Be aware that the covers are so similar that you may tend to overlook it thinking you already own it. For those who have acquired the taste, you will want to savor this album.
Shari Lloyd (3/29/99)