You know you’ve made it as a band when one of your idiosyncratic baroque indie gospel songs ends up soundtracking a Spar sandwich advert. After 12 years of under-the-radar off-kilter high-pitched releases, Daniel Smith and his extended family struck gold with 2006’s Ships, producing such fine moments as the convenience store-soundtracking Did I Step On Your Trumpet. The band’s bizarre musical mix hadn’t changed, but the post-Arcade Fire and Sufjan Stevens indie trends had, and interest in the Danielson family peaked. Now, a little late for the party arrives Trying Hartz, a double-disc compilation of the band’s pre-Ships songs, both live and studio-recorded; a gospel synopsis for the uninitiated new disciples of the squeaky Daniel Smith.
There is little denying the polarizing nature of Smith’s register-shattering chipmunk singing voice, but the universality of his intricate songwriting is easily agreed upon. Even Trying Hartz’ earliest tracks indicate songcraft of the greatest depth and attention, helped by the immediate pool of resources available in Daniel Smith’s family sitting room. Nice Of Me, the lead track from 1996’s A Prayer For Every Hour, is as carefully spun as later tracks like Daughters Will Tune You, and both are notable for their mastery of atmosphere and spider-web complexities.
Whether through their collective wearing of nurse’s uniforms on stage, or experiments like Don’t You Be The Judge (wherein Smith, in full preacher mode, asks audience members to devise a verse each on the spot and sing it along with the band with surprising success) the Danielson experience is meant to be a communal one, a lo-fi, soulful version of the mass gospel meetings you see on the God Channel. While there is enough ambiguity and introspection in Brother Danielson’s lyrics to allow access to even the most atheistic of listeners, Trying Hartz might not be the best starting point for those unfamiliar with the catechism. Hit and miss, winding passages and erratic mixing make this collection more of a “further reading” for the devotees of what is still their greatest gateway opportunity, Ships.
See Also: Bodies of Water- A Certain Feeling [Secretly Canadian], Sufjan Stevens- Michigan [Asthmatic Kitty]