There are certain bands in possession of a sound so initially inscrutable and distinctive that they are simply are not suited to casual fandom. I listened to The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall a good five or six times without really truly liking a single song before the whole album (and the Fall in general) suddenly clicked. There’s something to be said about a band that is capable of making the first time listener uneasy yet intriguing enough for the listener to ignore their instincts and press on. Danielson are such a band.
For neophytes, Danielson deserve, nay, absolutely demand, some introduction. The group is led by the almost pathologically original songwriter, Daniel Smith, who conceived the Danielson project as his thesis at Rutgers University. The idea behind Danielson, a collection of Smith’s family members and other musical collaborators join together to sing Smith’s songs about his family and their relationship with faith and God, is unique, but only goes part of the way to explaining what makes the Danielson experience so special. The music follows a logic that takes some time to unravel, but it’s worth the effort. Picture a group of acid casualties finding god and you’re on your way to understanding the Danielson sound. Smith and his giddy chorus yelp, screech, and hoot their way through a musical terrain that traverses gospel, twee, and Captain Beefheart, to name but a few influences. If that doesn’t necessarily appeal to you, then let me assure you that Danielson are surprisingly more melodic than the last sentence might lead you to believe. If you’re still not on board, then this is probably a good place to part ways.
Most people who know of Danielson (myself included) were made aware of the band around the time of the release of their breakthrough album, 2006’s Ships. Anyone who has spent a good amount of time with Ships would probably agree that it is a boldly esoteric album, and therefore not necessarily the easiest music to recommend. However, the newly released Trying Hartz, a collection of pre-Ships material that includes favorites, rarities, and live recordings, goes a long way to showing that there is no such thing as an easy introduction to Danielson.
What Trying Hartz does quite well is provide some helpful context for the listener that only learned of Danielson when Ships significantly upped the group’s name recognition. Ships might have struck some as impenetrable and chaotic and with good reason. However, Trying Hartz shows that Danielson have been madly tinkering and toying with their sound for some time, and Ships was the culmination of these efforts. If nothing else, it’ll make Ships seem a hell of a lot more focused.
This isn’t to imply that Danielson sound wobbly or unsure of themselves on Trying Hartz. If anything, it’s remarkable how confident the band seems with a sound so specific and difficult. One need only listen to the whimsical, possibly improvised, sing-a-long “Don’t You Be The Judge,” or the high-wire lunacy of “Flip Flop Flim Flam” to realize that this is a band that does not half-ass their quirks. But if it were just quirks, the gimmick would get old pretty fast. Fortunately, Smith and Co. know how to temper the weirdness with effective moments of gravitas, as on the surprisingly touching “Jersey Loverboy.”
Generally, Trying Hartz is a well-assembled anthology, sequenced with admirable consideration for the familiarity levels of its potential listeners. It’s difficult to gauge if early Danielson fans will find Trying Hartz to be essential, though the abundance of live tracks and rarities lead me to believe that it will be. I can confidently assert that fans of Ships absolutely need this record, if only to develop a better understanding of the band’s evolution. Newbies, enter at your own risk.