splendid > reviews > 6/15/2004
Brother Danielson
Brother Danielson
Brother Is To Son
Secretly Canadian

Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Hammers Sitting Still"

Buy me now
Daniel Smith can hardly contain himself. On his first solo album (but sixth outing with the Danielson Famile), the range of the human voice, the normal constructions of songs, the rhythms and tempos of music itself, are all bursting at the seams. It's as if he's struggling against artificial constraints that no one ever thought of as a problem before, and only now do we notice how they've been cutting into our wrists all along.

From its first giddily upper octave yelp ("Things against stuff! Yeah!), there's a manic fervor to this album, a lyricality that doesn't quite make sense, a caffeinated traditionalism that just won't stay pinned in place. You've never heard Sunday school piano chords hurled with this sort of abandon, or marching band drums sounding this chaotic. Even the quieter tracks -- the Smog-like "Sweet Sweeps" and banjo-lit "Daughters Will Tune You" -- pulse with emotion, all quaver and freshly-laundered sincerity, until they break right out into a trad-leaning celebration. And the faster songs -- "Our Givest", "Animal in Every Corner" -- percolate with percussive energy, as wildly manic and over the top as a Holy Modal Rounders song.

Smith draws on the usual cohort of siblings, parents, in-laws and good friends to create his feverish tunes. That's his wife Elin singing plaintive counterpoint on "Hammers Sitting Still", weaving in and out of a stop-start guitar, and Soul Junk's Glen Galaxy coloring the track with abstract guitar sounds. Sufjan Stevens plucks out the banjo lines that keep "Cookin' Mid-Country" grounded and logical, even as the piano crashes and Smith wails in a high, nasal key.

Almost every track has multiple movements -- bare, heartfelt meditations building into wacked Cecil B. DeMille choruses, then fading back again. There's a real feeling for complex rhythm, not just as an add-on, but as an integral part of the song. For instance, the fractional wait in "Our Givest" pulls you in and along in a staccato cadence that is as much a part of the song as melody or lyrics. Slow it down and you have the off-kilter beat of the acoustic "Hammers".

Lyrically, the songs lean heavily on spiritual themes, and words are dotted with Christian images. Still, most tracks are oblique enough that you don't feel force-fed. "Our Givest", for instance, with its "You give gifts / I cut them up / and put them down / and run away", is obviously not about the return line at Macy's after Christmas; it's a serious consideration of what we do with the talents God (or nature or however you want to put it) gives us. However, it's so far from a sermon, so accepting of human frailty and trying to do better, that I, who have a serious threshold issue with Christian music, had no problem with it. Similarly, "Physician Heal Yourself", another heavily Christian-imaged song, feels honest and spiritually valid. There's none of that "I'm saved and you're not" smugness that you find in a lot of Christian music. Smith is too full of self-doubt and searching for that, and I think that even non-Christian people can identify with the questions he asks, if not the answers.

This is utterly original, honest, intelligent music that sounds like nothing you'll hear elsewhere. It's not an easy listen, but it's well worth the time it takes to get to know it.



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