Monday, April 12, 2010

Danielson: Not Your Father's Christian Rock

When I was young and someone referred to Christian rock, I thought of Stryper and other third-rate bands who would never have had an audience if there didn't exist a group of Christians who were intent on hearing their faith expressed by big-haired hard rockers. I also thought of Godspell, a favorite of my parents. Now I know that's not a fair association and that Christian rock is not a genre of music ... but that was the association I grew up with.
Daniel Smith, the singer/songwriter behind the band, Danielson, hates it when reviews of his band begin with disclaimers about "Christian rock." He wonders why reviews of reggae albums don't begin with disclaimers about the writer's views on Rastafari. He has a good point. But the reggae albums I've listened to tend not to push their religion on me ... and I am not accustomed to being evangelized by Rastafarians. I have, however, had Christianity pushed on me. But that's not Danielson's fault.

Danielson's overarching message is the healing powers of Christianity. In fact, they are known for wearing nurses outfits during concerts to visually represent this message. Yet, Danielson has attracted an indie audience while largely being ignored by the fledgling Christian rock scene. Their innovative songs and performances are challenging even for the indie listener. Smith often sings in a squeaky falsetto, with family members responding high '50s-inspired backing vocals. The structure of the music can be complex - and the instrumentation is varied, ranging from Smith singing alone with an acoustic guitar (often while wearing a nine-foot-tall textile tree costume), to arrangements that involve string and horn sections. The result is hard to put into words, but let me try: The Pixies on acid playing children's songs at a Christian revival meeting. 

Danielson formed almost inadvertently in 1994 when Smith performed his musical thesis at Rutgers University with his siblings, the youngest just 12 years old. The project received an A, the family became a band, and the 24-song album was later released as A Prayer for Every Hour. Smith continued to write and perform songs with his family and other rotating members, releasing increasingly ambitious and impressive albums. They were helped along the way by famed indie icons Kramer and Steve Albini, who produced some of their early albums. This gave them indie cred, and they found themselves performing alternately at small town churches and hip NYC venues such as the Knitting Factory.

Where should you start your listening? I'd suggest Ships, Danielson's most recent full-length, or Brother is to Son, a sort-of best-of collection. They are band that is easy to rule out, but stick with it. Danielson is one of the most innovative, inspiring, and interesting bands playing today.

Recently the band has been chosen by Matt Groening to perform at the edition of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival he is curating in May 2010 in Minehead, England. They have also recently released a two-song EP, Moment Soakers

Below is the video for "Did You Step On My Trumpet" from Ships.

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