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Ships was born out of a six-song project with fellow cracked tunesmiths Deerhoof, and it eventually swelled to an epic recording that includes a boatload of musical guests, including Smith's family, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and producer Steve Albini, among many others. While Smith has spread the love before, bringing in multiple musicians on past efforts, Ships is a who's who of his insular musical world.
Smith explains away what sounds like collaborative overload with a verbal shrug. The two-year effort "was very organic," he insists. "As a policy, I try not to over-plan or over-think things, and try to keep things as spontaneous as possible in terms of the recording process."
The weight of the contributions, the scale of the near-apocalyptic storytelling, and the complex orchestrations all conspire to make Ships a rewarding and challenging piece of musical art. It's at once the most accessible and ambitious project from the hyper-creative and spiritual Smith, another vision from his intricate, homespun universe. His all-consuming cosmology can be confusing; fortunately, on Ships, some of the heavy scripture and allusion are tempered by personal reflection and narrative.
This may have something to do with why the album is getting well-deserved raves from places like Pitchfork, which gave the album an un-Pitchfork-like 9.1. The review was "completely above and beyond anything we'd dreamed of," says Smith. "Pretty much you can just stop there, these days. That one review alone has completely turned everything around."
Smith's musical projects have evolved and changed over time. Originally inspired by the disparate influences of college radio, punk rock, and the gospel music his father composed and played around the house, Smith has found a way to make a lot of heavenly noise. He's variously released recordings and performed as the Danielson Famile, Tri-Danielson, Br. Danielson, and, most recently, the boiled-down Danielson.
The Danielson Famile, a band consisting of his four brothers and sisters and a few childhood friends, was originally formed for Smith's master's thesis from Rutgers University. The first performance showcased the Famile playing ramped-up, playful indie odes to the man on high, featuring Smith's jagged, hard-strumming compositions augmented by hand claps, bells, naive choruses, and Smith's helium-flecked vocals, which have since mellowed slightly with age. He still chirps, and there is still much all-together-now vocalizing, but some of the manic energy and musical urgency of earlier recordings has been tempered by a warm, thankful glow.
"For this record, I'm calling everything Danielson, because it's not really technically the Famile," says Smith. "The Famile was a kind of strict decision to make sure everyone from the family was there -- I didn't want it to turn into calling everything the Beach Boys even though it's Brian Wilson. I don't want to do that -- I want to be able to honor the people who are there."
Currently in the middle of a full U.S. tour, the Danielship is about to touch down in Arizona for the first time. In shows past, Smith and crew have performed wearing homemade doctor and nurse uniforms, while at other times, Smith has performed entire tours singing and playing guitar inside a 10-foot-tall papier-mâch&ecute; tree with only his arms and head visible.
Will the nine-fruit tree make an appearance in Phoenix? "No, it will not. That is absolutely taking a long break," Smith says. "It's real sweaty and I was in that thing for a couple days in a row. I'm very happy to be in the new uniforms, that's for sure."