For the best part of a decade, Daniel Smith has been taking a sledgehammer to the strangely secular conceit of Christian music as happy-clappy God-bothering. As musical leader of the Danielson Famile?a Smithfest of siblings aged between 12 and 21?he handed in 1995’s debut album A Prayer For Every Hour for his final thesis at Rutgers University. Their first gig was his degree final (he got an A). The songs were unnerving: strident evocations of faith shredded by discordant guitars, abrupt stammers and Smith’s spasmic castrato. Klaus Nomi fronting the Shaggs, maybe, or Tiny Tim getting down with early Pixies. Lyrically, it was hardly Sir Cliff either: the Lord punishing Smith by demanding push-ups, or turning up unannounced as guest DJ at a funeral. Other albums tracked the same vein, often attracting cult producers and engineers like Steve Albini.
Brother Is To Son, however, is a whole new beast. Under the Brother Danielson banner (though the Famile, including wife Elin, father Lenny and mate Sufjan Stevens add back-up), the solo Smith seems sharper and more attuned to his own peculiar frequency. Indeed, at times it’s almost unbearably candid, an unflinching examination of his devotion both to homestead and to God. In this respect, the ebb tides of the music?delicate and brutal, sometimes faltering to a slow swell before crashing on through?make perfect sense. It’s the soundtrack to doubt and reaffirmation.
“Hammers Sitting Still” tries to reconcile the insecurity and frustration of his day job as a carpenter with service to the Almighty, eased by the soothing vocal asides of Elin. “Sweet Sweeps” is eerie: Smith falsetto, a little guitar, taps and scrapes, before woozy harmonies overlap and collide in a flurry of whispers and incantations. It’s a tumbledown spiritual that refuses to be tainted by “the games sweeping the nation’s veins” and where revitalised souls are “brand new brooms”, vessels of God. “Daughters Will Tune You” uncoils slowly from rolling guitar motif to banjo, bells and piano, emerging with the same contented skip as Smog’s “Keep Some Steady Friends Around”. Most striking of all, “Physician Heal Yourself” addresses Jesus directly (“If you can’t heal yourself/How could you fix me?”) before admitting: “I can’t understand the ways of my Lord/When I try and try with my mere mind as a man.”
It’s an often painful stumble through the wilderness, but Smith ultimately emerges invigorated.
You will too.