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Best Of Gloucester County

[Sounds Familyre/Fire Records; 2011]

By ; February 21, 2011 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

It’s a good job that Christians are big on forgiveness, otherwise Daniel Christopher Smith might be the bearer of some serious grudges; over the last decade, most of the traits that defined him and his ever-changing congregation (Danielson Famile, Brother Danielson, just plain Danielson) have been approximated by others who have gone on to eclipse him in terms of fame and fortune. The orchestral experimentation of groups like Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear — although admittedly a great deal more ambitious and epic in scale — owes much to Smith’s mid-’90s blueprint of well-crafted, baroque prog-pop song-writing, as do sprawling, extended-family units like the Polyphonic Spree, whose costumed “cult” image was cribbed wholesale from Smith and his “Famile.” Even one of his closest friends and musical allies, Sufjan Stevens, has become a genuine alternative icon by simply offering a slightly more straight-laced variation of the Danielson sound, while Smith himself is still viewed with suspicion by many as some kind of fringe-dwelling religious nut-job.

If Smith is harbouring any kind of ill will, it certainly doesn’t come through on his new self-produced album Best Of Gloucester County, the first Danielson release for five years. Sufjan is still very much in the fold, contributing banjo and backing vocals across the whole record, and although the “Famile” part of the name was dropped years ago, Danielson remains very much a community effort. There have, however, been some fairly major line-up changes: whilst Smith’s sisters Megan and Rachel and wife Elin reprise their regular chorus roles, percussionist brothers Andrew and David are absent, replaced by a quartet of new core players (the titular cream of local talent). A three-piece horn section adds brassy fanfares, and although it doesn’t quite match its predecessor Ships’ gargantuan guest list (no Why? Or Deerhoof this time around, sadly), appearances from Jens Lekman and members of Sereena Maneesh and Cryptacize push the overall head-count well into double figures.

If Smith’s falsetto yelp and happy-clappy songs have proved an obstacle in the past, this is not going to be the record to change your mind; Gloucester doesn’t exactly explore new ground, and the overall tone and tempo is as relentlessly upbeat as ever. From the slinky folk-funk of opener “Complimentary Dismemberment Insurance” through to multi-section jam “Olympic Portions,” the order of the day is deliberately ramshackle pop infused with a Kinks-y playfulness and bewildering, Beefheart/Barrett- inspired surrealist imagery. “This Day Is A Loaf,” with its chiming bells and swirling organs, has a woozy fairground waltz feel, whilst the barrel piano and stop-start rhythms that dominate “People’s Partay” call to mind the zany musical numbers from the Muppet Show. The epic “But I Don’t Wanna Sing About Guitars” features some interesting six-string effects and sweeping Bond-theme dynamics, but it’s “Lil Norge” that really embodies the spirit of the album; a ska-inflected group sing-along that feels like some deranged, hallucinatory version of the Beatles’ “Ob La Di Ob La Da.”

For those who stick with it, Gloucester’s final stretch provides its most rewarding moments. Moving away from madcap prog-pop, “You Sleep Good Now” is a slow-burning psych-country lullaby featuring some fine interplay between Evan Mazunik’s piano, Andy Wilson’s guitar and Stevens’ banjo. The spindly “Denominator Bluise” is propelled by a gently throbbing pulse, recalling James Yorkston’s Kraut-folk experiments, whilst “Hovering Above That Hill” and album closer “Hosanna In The Forest” build shimmering walls of droning sound that harken back to the trance-like ragas Smith experimented with on 1997’s Tell Another Joke At The Ol’ Choppin’ Block. As its title suggests, this album is the product of a close and capable group of musicians, but it also highlights the frustrating fact that in more than fifteen years of releasing music Smith has barely set foot outside of his comfort zone. Knocking out fun little songs at home with old friends is all well and good, but it isn’t hard to imagine a little more effort and sincerity resulting in something a bit more enduring.


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