Brother Danielson and his merry band of psychedelic Christian folksters have returned, and they’ve recruited a whole boatload of crewmen for Ships, the term that both acts as the name of a vessel that carries with it a plethora of historical seafaring imagery, and also as a suffix, for both the band and the many `friends’ they’ve brought along. What started as a thesis project for Rutgers University featuring his siblings has since turned into a massive communal event; complete with matching uniforms (with the requisite hearts on sleeves), Daniel Smith drawn graphics, overarching themes and an all-encompassing collaborative spirit. With Ships, Daniel not only has the eleven members of his `Famile,’ with its creative genes supplying the talents of this cadre of clean-cut men and winsome ladies, but it also features the help of 22 other guests (whose names are drawn into the riggings for the sail on the cover) including members of Half-Handed Cloud, Ladytron, Deerhoof, Why?, and Sareena Maneesh along with legendary producer Steve Albini and like-minded Smith associate Sufjan Stevens. The result of this endeavor is an album so quirky and celebratory that one wants to cast aside a `normal’ life and becomes Smith’s stowaway.
Ships was originally intended to be a smaller project, as has probably been every other endeavor in which Smith has been involved. It grew so large that the Famile released three 7″ singles, on Sounds Familyre, Kill Rock Stars and Anticon, as initial cannon-fire before Ships arrived. Ships, the album proper, has the multiple instrument, play what you can spirit that is also employed by Sufjan Stevens. The two have alternately inspired each other, featuring each other on their own respective albums, the most significant being the Smith-produced Stevens album, the quieter Seven Swans, put out on Smith’s Sounds Familyre label. Ships shares more in common with Stevens’ state albums, full of sound, energy and with a single focus, albeit from 34 different directions. Smith’s voice is like Frank Black’s when he uses his glorious falsetto, though with the Famile singing backup, the sound is more of a Polyphonic Spree high school glee club affair.
One of the more compelling songs on the album is the foot-stomper, “Did I Step on Your Trumpet,” which stemmed from a time when a grade school friend accused Smith of actually flattening the bell of his trumpet. He doesn’t quite remember, but now uses the song’s title as a way to apologize for any offense. The song is equal parts sweetly sung infectious choruses, angelic organ, and hip-shaking stutter guitar verses. “Two Sitting Ducks” is another of those energetic and infectious falsetto wailers with that `not quite professional’ backup singer charm. “My Lion Sleeps Tonight” employs the use of the parable of the prodigal son, while “Kids Pushing Kids” stems from Smith’s school days of being pushed around by bullies.
It’s fitting that the members of the live Danielson Famile troupe wear uniforms that feature hearts on the sleeves, which is when Daniel isn’t dressed up as a tree. Whether they’re singing about being a vessel from the Creator, a feeling they share with Prince, who looked heavenward and stated the same when praised by Kurt Loder, or about the aspects of everyday life, Danielson does it with sheer joy, bringing every one of their listeners along for the ride. So, whether you’re just a fan of joyful noise, of creative psychedelic pop music, or of Decemberists-like historical ship imagery, you’re sure to love Ships. In fact, I think this could easily become the basis for a new seafaring adventure ride at Disneyland, using the album as the background music. Besides, it’s about time they revamped the Columbia. Or maybe Smith and Sufjan should just start their own theme park.
Sufjan Stevens- Illinois
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