Danielson Famile

at Schubas, March 2

Christians are creepy. Especially the blond, blue-eyed, straight-toothed, squeaky-clean ones. They’ve got that look in their eye–at once smug, condescending, and utterly vacant. They don’t have to know anything about the world. They don’t have to care. They know they’re going to heaven and you’re not, not unless you admit that they’re right, put on some pastels or a nice suit, and slink meekly into church, or at least mail in that little form from the back of the tracts where you sign a prayer saying you’ve given your heart to Jesus, like you’re signing an organ donor card. They talk a great game about the mercy of God, and the good shepherd, as if being a sheep is the finest thing they can imagine, but you suspect they’d burn you at the stake if they could get away with it.

Anybody feel a little shiver of agreement reading that? Well, if I’d rattled off a similar list of unappealing stereotypes about Jews or Buddhists or Muslims, you’d be appalled, and rightly so. In educated liberal America, it’s only sort of OK to be a Christian, and only if you keep it to yourself. Which is not what Christians are supposed to do–they’re supposed to spread the good news to everyone they meet. And that’s part of what makes the rest of us think they’re creepy. Jews don’t knock on your door at indecent morning hours (when only sinners are sleeping) with apocalyptic little magazines. Muslims don’t harangue strangers in bus stations. And Christians, whether they believe it or not, hold power in this country. Why are so many things closed on Sunday? ‘Cause it’s the Sabbath. And who says Sunday is the Sabbath? Christians. Why can’t gay people get married? It’s not like the Buddhists care. So if you’re feeling in any way under the heel of Christian doctrine as (crudely) interpreted by cultural powerbrokers over the centuries–and it’s hard not to–Christians might seem creepy.

And then there’s that creepy white Christian music.

I grew up in a part of the country where “religious diversity” means that the Methodists and the Baptists both make an effort to be polite to the Pentecostals. So I heard a lot of this stuff, and at the time I decided that the least creepy music actually came from the Holiness folks, because at least, with the crying out and the waving of hands and the collapsing to the floor and the hair-raisingly plangent harmonies, they seemed to be expressing something I could have brief, intense flashes of believing in–or at least believing that it existed very powerfully for them. The hymns in the richer Methodist churches, by contrast, were just too stately; they seemed to be trying to emulate an orderly, formal heaven full of angel choirs that presumably (unlike their earthly imitators) were never ever out of tune. I still read the Bible in those days, but those elegant, soaring nearer-my-God-to-thees seemed out of phase with what I saw there, especially the violence of the Old Testament and the passion of the tribulations visited by the Lord upon his chosen people. To me, the divine was just as likely to sound like howls and cries of confusion and despair, or inexplicable joy.

Lenny Smith, the father of the siblings who constitute almost all of the indie-rock band known as the Danielson Famile, is a home remodeler, English teacher, “multidenominational worship leader,” and gospel songwriter with several hits under his belt, including “Our God Reigns,” and he would almost certainly disagree with me on the preferred sound for divinity. On the Web site for his publishing company, New Jerusalem Music (which his children also use), he airs his thoughts on contemporary Christian music, and here’s the sort of thing he has to say: “I believe praise and worship songs should be ‘spiritual.’ ‘Of course,’ you say. But I believe the ONLY way they can be ‘spiritual’ is to have a very MELODIOUS MELODY…RISING AND FALL-ING, RISING AND FALLING…OFTEN LEADING TO A CLIMAX AND RESOLVING.” He then goes on to classify songs as “spiritual,” “soulish,” and “fleshly,” in declining order of holiness, based largely on the strength of their melodies (he’s not a big fan of the weak-melody/strong-rhythm combination); and to attack the “boring mush” that dominates Christian pop today.

You have to wonder what Smith thinks of the band led by his son Daniel (Daniel-son, get it?)–because man, is that a racket.

In the small south Jersey town they’re from, Daniel says in the band’s bio, “I was threatened a lot as a teenager.” Like a lot of creative kids, he responded to hostility with art, forming a noise/performance art group–if you aren’t going to fit in no matter what, you might as well milk it. The first Danielson album, A Prayer for Every Hour, released in 1995, was reportedly his college thesis project, and supposedly he got an A. Now he and his siblings Megan, Rachel, David, and Andrew, plus his wife, Elin, and one honorary family member, identified as Chris “X” Smith, make their shared history the foundation of their art. And it sounds like they’ve applied the command to be fruitful and multiply to ideas, sounds, and rhythms.

It’s not that they lack melody–quite the contrary. They use a riot of melodies, all of which seem to fall all over each other in their haste to reach heavenward, and most of them are stickier than even the most lurid parts of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Keyboards, guitars, and bells (played by strict blond Megan, who, in her crisp nurse’s uniform and prim expression, is the spitting image of my old Sunday-school nemesis, a bossy, self-righteous girl who could see the sin in your soul just as clearly as the dirt under your nails) that jangle, ring, and jostle are capped off by Daniel’s distinctive singing–with his harrowing falsetto, he sounds like a castrato who was caught too late and forever frozen in pubescent voice crack. It’s about as uneasy as music can get. So I can see the old man smiling even as he turns down the volume: it isn’t mush, that’s for sure.

Which is why its appeal is, so to speak, cross-cultural. I don’t know how many of the folks crammed into Schubas while the Danielson Famile brought down the glory a couple weeks ago have voluntarily set foot in a church lately–lots of the dancing was decidedly secular, beer sales didn’t seem to be down, and the person who was singing along louder than anyone else happened to be a Judaic scholar. Is there an unbreachable gulf between indie hipsters and hard-core Christians? You’d think so, and yet the joy of Danielson is that they play their hearts out just as though there isn’t. You don’t have to buy a single word of their message to enjoy their lush creative overgrowth.

I’m sure they’re pleased by their moderate success; they’ve recently moved from the Christian-associated rock label Tooth & Nail to secular indie Secretly Canadian, which is reissuing all four of their earlier albums in addition to releasing their forthcoming fifth, Fetch the Compass Kids. But the Danielson Famile don’t seem to have ever watered down the content to appease secular audiences. The mush their dad despises fails because it lacks the tension to convey the intense struggle between spiritual ideal and reality–a clash in the mind that’s like living, that’s like hammering transgressive joy out of internal contradiction. But to see the Danielson Famile live is to begin to conceive of what a revival meeting would be like if the people you knew were “slain in the spirit,” as they say.

Even atheists might nod to an implicit spirituality in music they love, but there’s no getting around the fact that the Danielson Famile mean it to be explicit. Not every song is all “lord lord lord,” but at least every other one is clearly religious. At Schubas they opened with “We Don’t Say Shut Up,” from the new album: “Hush, hush, what’s the rush / East coast children do too much / What He whispers we will shout / Conform in then transform out / Quiet time! / It’s the quiet time! / Be the quiet time! / For the quiet time!” Obviously they’re not talking about the boisterous heat of their rock ‘n’ roll moment–they’re wondering what you’ll think about afterward.

Though it’s hard to imagine Amy Grant fans ever buying an album that included a song called “Good News for the Pus Pickers,” it’s also tough to imagine streams of corduroy boys rushing the Borders theology aisle for insights on what inspired the great show they saw last night. But when the Danielson kids work so hard to say what they mean in their squeaky, elaborate, beautifully cacophonous way, it’s only natural that they would hope someone will actually hear it. And what’s so creepy about that?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.