Like the multiple permutations of Palace that Will Oldham adopted for his first band, Daniel Smith has also been one for varying the calling card he operates behind. But wayward though he is in other ways, there is a distinct logic to the shifting monikers. The original Danielson Famile truly was Smith leading his siblings into song, Brother Danielson covers his solo efforts and Danielson (nee Danielsonship) is the vehicle for a heavier rock sound and an umbrella for multiple contributors and wider ‘family’ members (and of course when all three incarnations were brought together this was labelled Tri-Danielson). But for new album ‘Best of Gloucester County’ released this week (Fire Records in the UK, Smith’s own label Sounds Familyre in North America), Smith continues as on 2006’s ‘Ships’ to operate simply under Danielson.
And the new album continues the gradual journey away from Christian lectern folk naiveté to oddball art-rock. In some ways this is a calmer, more thoughtful collection than “Ships” but everything is relative: Smith still yelps and baffles in equal measure. Joining him in this densely woven yarn of folk, rock and gospel is long-time friend and accomplice Sufjan Stevens, Jens Lekman and members of Serena-Maneesh, Cryptacize and US Maple, a selection of players reflecting the album’s span from cutesy melody to arty clamour.
If not quite the high-pitched shrieking on earlier records, the man-boy yowls and yodels are still intact and occasionally still disconcerting. So “Best of Gloucester County” sounds less the work of a crazed and raging fundamentalist pastor, and more that of a thoughtful and maturing idiot savant - if that’s not a contradiction. However one of the more straightforward songs ‘Grow Up’ is itself a contradiction: is it the Smith the adult who wrote the song or Smith the sneering brattish teen who sings who needs to grow up “whatever that means”?
In this and the denser rock songs like ‘Today Is A Loaf’ or ‘But I Don’t Want To Sing About Guitars’, the New Jersey-based ensemble come across like Daniel Johnston fronting The Cardiacs or even the arch cabaret-pop of Of Montreal without the flamboyance and make-up (Smith has always preferred matching uniforms or tree outfits). Set against this earnest complexity are the more playful, even playground, rhythms of coy friendship plea ‘Lil Norge’ or the "silly-string-and-streamers" rhumba of ‘Partay People’.
In the second half of the album the quieter and reflective ‘ You Sleep Now’ slips into the mystical drones of ‘Hovering Above That Hill’. The latter hums with tension, ringing bells and disembodied voices whilst different instruments drift in and out of ear-shot. The album closes with another stylistic changing-down of gear: the angelic strings and spiritual chants of ‘Hosanna in The Forest’. I guess you never lose that religious fervour.
Similar to his friend Sufjan’s last epic long-player, ‘Best of Gloucester County’ can be appear intimidating and impenetrable (although Smith keeps his album to a manageable 42 minutes – nearly half the length of “Age of Adz”). However get past Danielson’s twisting idiosyncrasies and there’s plentiful variety to engage and entertain. Who needs to grow up?
Lil Norge - Danielson
Danielson Best of Gloucester County [BUY]