Harvest of Hope: Dogged by dogma

with Ben + Vesper, Ortolan
8 p.m. Saturday, March 13
Stardust Video and Coffee, 407-623-3393



In 2006, upon the release of the Danielson Famile's art-rock opus, Ships, Daniel Smith stopped being asked to explain his obsession with Jesus.

"That's when `music writers` just took that out of the equation," says Smith, the Bible-toting, helium-voiced frontman for the New Jersey-based Christian cult band of cult bands. "Now, sometimes, people just talk about the music." It only took 15 years.

In 2001, not even a new, secular label or Steve Albini's name in the liner notes could convince Pitchfork to give the band's Fetch the Compass, Kids even a halfway serious review: "The Danielson Famile won't hurt you! They're Pentecostal, which means that they like Jesus a lot ... Do you think Jesus would want to hurt you?"

A year later, Pitchfork gave credit to Secretly Canadian's re-release of Smith's 1995 debut A Prayer for Every Hour, (originally put out by secretly Christian Tooth and Nail Records) for "trumping the boredom of status quo American Christianity," but only after calling it a great way to kill the mood for sex.

Smith can sympathize. Growing up in a house piped with folk music, he thought Christian rock was lame, too.

"Once you know what Bob Dylan and the Beatles sound like, it's hard to convince somebody that's of the devil," says Smith.

Except, of course, the Christian bookstore that all but refused to sell him U2's War when he was a kid.

"I told them, ‘I want this new record by U2, do you have it?' And they said, ‘Yeah, we have that but you should buy this `Christian album` because it sounds like U2,'" Smith says. "Even at 11 or 12, I knew something was wrong."

Which is maybe why, today, the members of the Danielson Famile — most of whom are members of Smith's actual family and who don nurse's uniforms on stage to signify God's healing — finally seem so right to the followers of indie rock.

"We were certainly the laughing stock in a lot of circles in the Christian scene but I think, partly, the reason the indie scene took to us was because they heard the Christian scene wasn't going for it," says Smith. "It was like, ‘Here's a band with every lyric from the Bible but the music is so strange to that `Christian` culture, maybe we should check it out.'"

To be fair, the music is strange — notoriously, vexingly, uniquely strange — to everyone, as are the lyrics; early records come across like soundtracks to off-off-Broadway musicals about Christian carnies struggling with sexual sin. Which is to say that the staccato instrumentation, Beaker-esque sung-spoken vocals and Kumbaya singalongs about not dating "potty mouths" and God having the whole wide word — including "your eyeballs at the beach" — in his hands shouldn't sound good, but they do. In 2006, it apparently sounded a bit too sincere for a third obnoxious review.

Maybe it was the Sufjan Stevens connection, maybe it was because Deerhoof played on it, but the only reference to religion or to the Christian music scene in Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber's "Best New Music"-rated review of "the spectacular Ships" was the description, without commentary, of the songs as "highly conceptual paeans to God." Schreiber gave the record a score of 9.1 out of 10, obsession with Jesus and all. They only gave War an 8.9.

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