The opening notes and vocals of Danielson Famile’s Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Choppin’ Block immediately make you wonder what you are listening to. Is this a joke in and of itself? Is this seriously supposed to be . . . . music? People listen to this voluntarily?
To say that the music of Daniel Smith, in any form (either on his own, or with his band comprised of his siblings, or when he’s teaming up with Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil) is an acquired taste would be putting it lightly. The music (sans vocals…I’ll get to the vocals) is indescribable. 1 The lead vocals, cheery and high pitched, seem to be a falsetto blend of Sonic Youth and Perry Farrell.
But the underlying emotion you get from listening to any Danielson album is simple - joy.
There are several albums in Smith’s catalog to choose from. His first, a 24 track solo album originally produced as a college thesis, is a less refined choice. Punk rock is at the core, but it’s punk rock through the lens of worship and prayer, then thrown into a blender.
I was first exposed to Danielson Famile at Alpha & Omega, my local Christian bookstore. They had bravely (or foolishly, depending on who you might ask), allowed their employees to write up recommendations for albums that they loved, and there was one employee who wrote a glowing review of, Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Choppin’ Block.2, which was on Tooth & Nail Records, my favorite label at the time.34
I tried to buy every Tooth & Nail CD that I could find back then. I liked most of their releases, so the gamble was a safe bet. I am still listening to a lot of those bands today, so in the long run, I guess it paid off.
Which brings me to Danielson Famile. Unlike their labelmates, Danielson was not punk rock, or alternative, or hardcore. Danielson had instrumentation that included the banjo, flutes, bells, an organ, and, I think even a glockenspiel. Then there were the vocals. Singing lyrics that . . . . well, were different.
From “Jersey Loverboy” -
There will be a day when,"Hey Babe, let's make babies," is finally said. And walls will weep and the ground will shake.
From “Big Baby” 5-
Time again my dad Rang me on the phone Tells me I've been had Said I'd take a mess-A-mess-a-message
Poetic metaphors and absurdity aside, this was like nothing I had ever heard before. Whenever I share Danielson Famile with a friend, I have to warn them, “This is weird, but it’s awesome.”
And that’s what makes them so enjoyable. The weirdness is the charm. And there’s also the joy. Surrounding himself with his siblings as contributing musicians and background vocals, the family aspect of Danielson Famile isn’t just a gimmick. There’s a playfulness in every song, thanks to this. The Smith Family seems to be everything that one might fear or admire about homeschool families - deeply intelligent, but also a bit odd.
I can’t say that their music is everyone’s cup of tea, but if you give it time to wash over you, if you pore over the lyrics and the accompaning art, you just might have a new appreciation for it. Danielson Famile isn’t straightforward rock & roll or folk music. Danielson Famile is improvisational jazz, taking you on a ride through hills and valleys, touching on creative parts of your brain that you never thought you had.
When I was a graphic design student, and I would be up late at night working on a project, I would often find myself spinning a Danielson Famile album for this exact purpose. The creativity behind the music helped me to feel creative myself. I’m not sure if there is some scientific explanation for this, or maybe it’s just me. But creativity gives birth to more creativity. I owe a lot of my best ideas to those late night studio sessions with Danielson as the soundtrack.
So consider giving Danielson Famile a shot. You may not like it at first, but if you have any creative energy inside of you, maybe it will grow on you in ways you don’t expect.
Which makes writing about what it sounds like a very interesting and almost futile task.
This was completely out of place among recommendations for Stephen Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant, and Michael W. Smith.
Tooth & Nail Records has a long history that I can’t get into here; there’s a great podcast called Labeled: The Stories, Rumors, and Legends of Tooth & Nail Records that tells the story quite well.
I don’t have proof of this, but I’m fairly certain that the person who wrote the review and sold me the CD was a local recording artist who had relocated to Western NY from Seattle, and had played drums for a bunch of my favorite bands over the years. I once asked him about this theory, but he was coy about whether or not I was correct, so I won’t say his name.
Back in the answering machine days, I used this as our outgoing message for a few months.