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Danielson - Ships

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Artist: Danielson

Album: Ships

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: May. 14, 2006

The official narrative of Daniel Smith’s newest album is that it began as a small project that overflowed its banks, becoming a behemoth spilling beyond this CD into a forthcoming series of 7”s with no fewer than 34 individuals - including the entire Danielson Famile, Deerhoof, Why?, Steve Albini, Edith Frost, Sufjan Stevens, Ladytron, Half-Handed Cloud, and a handful of others - playing significant roles in shaping its sound and content in a big party of past Danielson contributors making this a culmination of sorts, both in terms of personnel and nomenclature, with Smith reverting to the original name “Danielson” after going through a Palace- or Sun Ra-esque series of nominal permutations. Oh yeah, and God finds his way in there too.

It’s not a bad narrative, and it does do a pretty accurate job of describing the sound of Ships. Even more than other communally-based indie records of recent times (the New Pornographers or Polyphonic Spree, say), Ships is almost uniformly happy. The hooks are nearly endless, each catchier than the last, and each song features a Technicolor array of instruments that create a perfect sonic version of the mildly psychedelic album art that comes with every Danielson release. The narrative breaks down, when you actually try to find all the individual contributors within individual songs. Deerhoof’s addition is the most obvious, with the occasional Greg Saunier drum explosion or John Dieterich guitar lick emerging from the mix. But the rest of the figures are all subsumed within Smith’s creative vision.

Smith’s voice remains his most recognizable calling card. It’s almost infinitely malleable, bending and straining but never breaking, always scraping above and beyond where the top of his range should be. It’s almost impossible to imagine the person from whom such a voice would emerge. I can only envision some kind of mask, frozen with a look of (only somewhat creepy) glee. He’s not always happy, but even in the minor-key moments, there’s a sense of hope in the background. And that’s where religion comes into the picture.

The Danielson Famile has always had some kind of crazy Christian underpinning; their first few albums did come out on Tooth and Nail after all. As with Sufjan Stevens, the music itself is a form of worship, so there’s none of the evangelical furor that makes so much “Christian rock” unbearable for the lay listener. However, unlike Sufjan who writes allegories to demonstrate his beliefs, Smith’s faith comes across like a metaphysical conversation with God. He is Tevye, musing over his day-to-day dealings with life while attempting to fulfill his duties to God. He would all love for us to come aboard his ship, but he’s content with the party that’s there already. The final point of departure with Smith and Sufjan is that Smith could care less about being cute or fey (at least on record). Ships is muscular, unafraid to rock out where necessary, and despite the presence of trumpets, strings, accordions, and glockenspiels, the album is still based on guitar, drums, keyboards, and bass. Despite what so many people in power would have us believe, religion is a tool, a segment of existence and human thought that can be worthwhile but need not be all consuming. Smith, as far as I can tell, isn’t trying to convert anyone through his music, just show us a good time.

By Dan Ruccia

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