Daniel Smith is a man who understands the importance of family. Under various monikers dating back to 1994 (Danielson Familie, Brother Danielson, and more recently plain old `Danielson’), he’s garnered the help of loved ones in crafting oddly ecstatic gospel-folk. Smith finally dissolved the resistance of his remaining critics with the release of Ships in 2006, an earnestly inspired concept album celebrating the suffix in all its splendor; a paean of sorts to friends who’d made his music career up to that point more than just possible, but worth penning an entire release in honor of their contributions.
For those (like me) who only caught on to Smith’s work thanks to the much-heralded Ships, Trying Hartz provides an ideal port into his vast creative backlog. A two-disc retrospective highlighting a decade of Danielson (1994-2004), Hartz spans 28 tracks ranging from tender devotionals (a live version of “I Am My Beloved’s”) to banjo-pluckin’ barn burners (“Daughters Will Tune You”) and even the occasional asinine diversion into silliness (“Pottymouth”).
Though Smith has denied that he makes “Christian” music, his faith informs the bulk of Hartz, whether in simple admonitions against cursing (the aforementioned “Pottymouth”) or pondering the afterlife (“A Meeting With Your Maker”). Atheists rest assured, Smith is far from the overbearing southern preacher fueled by fear tactics or fire and brimstone. His decries serve not to proselytize, but are offered instead as examples for leading better lives. As honorary members of the Danielson “familie,” listeners are invited to consider their brothers as much as themselves.
Family bonding bubbles up on the various live tracks. Audience members are encouraged to sing improvised verses on the spot on “Don’t You Be The Judge,” a song capturing Smith’s easy and amiable relationship with fans. Assuming you’re not easily turned off by eccentric vocals (his shrill falsetto takes a little getting used to), Smith’s childlike exuberance is sure to illuminate even the hardest hearts. Arrayed against a proliferating landscape of disillusionment and despondence in this curious present moment of political corruption and economic turmoil, this collection comes as a refreshing distraction.