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Trying Hartz:First Fruits '94-'04
Sounds Familyre/Secretly Canadian
There was a time in my life, at least with one particular fan of Christian market rock fan of my acquaintance, when admitting to being a fan of Danielson amounted to fighting words. With very few exceptions, methinks, the bands my semi-adversary championed have passed into history, whereas the Danielson Familie/Brother Danielson/Tri-Danielson/Danielsonship/Danielson juggernaut continues on undaunted, albeit 1) they are no longer on a Christian market label and 2) are more influential on the general market indieground than the semi-insular confines of strictly Christian market rock.
Trying Hartz summarizes the band's first decade prior to 2006's ambitious Ships, the album that brought together so many of the idiosyncratic mannerisms and influences of the Danielson aesthetic into an ambitious, glorious magnum opus that, frankly, is going to be tough for Daniel Smith and his troupe of kin to top. The amazing thing about Hartz's two non-chronological CD's of retrospection over such a sonically provocative career is just how normal it sounds now.
Consider: in the time since the band's mid-'90s debut long-player A Prayer for Every Hour (originally an art school project for Smith), rock and folk fans have witnessed the rise of the choral shenanigans of The Polyphonic Spree and the critical ascendance of erstwhile Danielson accomplice Sufjan Stevens. The vocal peculiarities and the aural polyglot of twee poppiness, psychedlia, folkiness, prog, and Lord-knows-what-all-else that comprise Danielson's uniqueness--not to mention the acceptance of other overtly Christian acts into the colegiate rock establishment--have seeped into the general (niche) culture.
That's not to say that Danielson doesn't still provide a musical trip you are probably not going to get from anyone else. Oh, they provide it all right. There is nearly unhinged, if cautionary glee. There is the kind of avant-bluegrass and string arrangements that both David Crowder and Bela Fleck can admire. There is a sense of worshipfulness that everyone recording for a Hillsong church could learn from. There is sing-along bonhomie perfect for campfire s'more eating. There is what sounds like glockenspiel and xylophone, for goodness' sake. And there is at least as much Scriptural allusion and application as you are apt to hear on the singles populating the Christian rock radio top 20 (half of which at this writing, ironicaly enough, is occupied by acts on Danielson's former Christian market label*).
But Smith's keening, Ween-ish falsetto, the absence of familiar guitar feedback, a costume wardrobe that includes matching nurse uniforms and a giant tree and lyrical allegories referencing pus picking, rubbernecking, carpentry and pottymouths aren't likely to be the province of church youth group pizza parties any time soon. Surprise me with corrections if I'm wrong about that, but, as they celebrate a decade-plus of godly provocation (and seeing much of their back catalog reissued on LP), I'm glad to keep Danielson in my arsenal of potential fighting words.
(*-according to Radio & Records, and that Christian label is Tooth&Nail if you didn't know)
Jamie Lee Rake