The broad outlines of the story are by now familiar. How a certain young man from Clarksboro, NJ, one Daniel Smith, having for a time turned his back on the culture and musical milieu in which he was raised up, which is to say having (temporarily, to go off to school) turned his back on impeccable folk and gospel bona fides in the person of his father, and having left behind the aggregation of his family, a large, singing musical brood, headed out into the world to see a few things. And yet in the course of doing so this Daniel Smith realized, with the kind of suddenness that we might associate with insight or revelation, that his family was a blessing, and that he needed to sing about this family. And not only did he need to sing about his family and the faith that sustained it, he needed, again, to sing and play with his family. The year of this revelation was 1994.
Not such an unusual tale, really. It's one that goes all the way back to St. Augustine. And yet in this case, the young man was no ordinary musician. On the one hand, in his not-really-missing years, Daniel Smith, had drunk deep of the dark fringes of indie rock and outsider art, including and not limited to the likes of Sonic Youth, Captain Beefheart, Yoko Ono, Pere Ubu, Andy Warhol, Howard Finster, et al. And on the other hand he was not kidding about the purity and complexity and seriousness of his faith. He wrote (and writes) fearlessly about spiritual experience, in a way that ought to be the envy of all these gauzy and simulated gospel artists you hear out there. This Smith was loaded down with paradoxes. He was alpha and omega, he was light and dark, he was sacred and entertaining, he was folk/gospel and he was indie/prog/punk.
All of which is to say: the vision was fully articulated, was perfected, at the moment at which he assembled his brothers and sisters, Megan, Rachel, Andrew, and David, to play in the band (at his thesis exhibition at Rutgers, excerpts available online and in the documentary Make A Joyful Noise Here, for those who need proof), although a host of later collaborators didn't hurt, including Chris and Melissa Palladino, Sufjan Stevens, Daniel's wife Elin, and many others. Fresh from the success of the first Smith family recording sessions, immortalized on A Prayer for Every Hour, Smith moved with his brothers and sisters through an incredibly fertile period including the drone-oriented Danielson Famile release Tell Another Joke at the Ole Choppin Block (1997), the two-disc Dante-esque epic poem of Tri-Danielson (1999), and the summa of the Danielson Famile output, Fetch the Compass Kids (2001), a Steve Albini-produced effort that benefits from a perfect mix and the increasing vigor and confidence of the two-brother percussion section of Andrew and David. And if this music's inspired qualities were not enough, there was also the visual art and the performance art sideline to the Danielson empire, which was just as singular--the nurse's uniforms with hearts painted on the sleeves, the tree outfit in which Daniel often strummed his acoustic guitar, as well as a myriad of spin-off products, creams and eye shades and t-shirts, all designed to amuse and instruct in equal measure.
Yet what began as an evocation of family commenced in the first post-millennial decade, to suffer with some of the complexities of family life in general. In short, the Smith family, first wellspring of Daniel's musical work, began to grow up. Sisters got married, became mothers themselves, moved far across the country; the drummers, barely out of their single digits on the first record, grew up and went off to college. In order to preserve some forward momentum, as well as the possibility of experiment, Daniel became Brother Danielson, which personage effectively reared his head first on a portion of Tri-Danielson. Now he was anew this solo artist, on Brother Is to Son (2004). Likewise, on 2006's Ships, Smith metamorphosed again into that third part of his tripartite recording entity, Danielson, a collaborating and more outwardly directed version of himself, with a more wide-angle intensity and focus.
Trying Hartz samples the first decade of the Danielson/Danielson Famile/Br. Danielson oeuvre (all the years before Ships), attesting generously to the movement of the work as a whole, from proto-minimalist eccentric gospel band to prog-metal-dread outfit to music hall choir to indie rock one-man band to outsider art celebrity to family man and family member. It's a perfect starter volume for listeners who have not had the pleasure of engaging with the evolution of this unusual, surprising, and incredibly moving musical consortium. And yet: please note that no verbal account of the work can possibly summon the effect of the decade digested in this assemblage. After all, as Daniel sings, "My Lord is known by His song." Not by His press releases. The ecstatic vision of the Danielson project is the unnamable part, the impossible to describe part, and this ecstatic vision is cumulative. It's not what Daniel says, though he always says it well, it's the circumstances in which he says it, with family gathered around him, whether related by blood or not; it's the reiteration of the spiritual thematic material, a reiteration that sounds nothing like early 20th century gospel--it's far more poeticized, it's far more elemental--but which has all the seriousness and all the joy of that long ago music. Ecstatic vision. You won't get it by reading these lines, nor even by reading the lyrics. You will get it by listening to this distillation of ten years' work and the earlier albums and going to the shows. Then you will experience the humble but devious and complicated grassroots movement that is Danielson. Trying Hartz is an essential place to start.