Trying Hartz (First-Fruits '94-'04)
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2008 1 Nov
- Now Try
- Body English
- Flip Flop Flim Flam
- Singers Go First
- Jersey Loverboy
- Animal in Every Corner (version)
- Sold! To the Nice Rich Man! (live)
- Thanx to Noah
- Rallying the Dominoes
- The Lord's Rest (live)
- A Meeting with Your Maker
- Daughters Will Tune You
- Runnin' to Brother
- A No No
- Good News for the Pus Pickers
- Don't You Be the Judge (live)
- The Wheel Made Man
- Fetch the Compass Kids (live)
- Idiot Boksen
- Nice of Me (live)
- Cutest Lil Dragon (live)
- Southern Paws
- I Am My Beloved's (live)
- Hammers Sitting Still (live)
- Smooth Death
- Cheer Hart
Between Daniel Smith's unusual lyricism and his screechy falsetto (evocative of Tiny Tim, Monty Python, and some sort of cartoon mouse), the simplest way to describe the music of Danielson is weird, weird, weird, weird, weird. This stuff isn't accessible by any means, and yet there's something fascinating about the combination of the truly unique sound with the overt expressions of Christian faith. Say what you will, but Smith has been true to himself throughout his family band's various incarnations as an alternative indie folk gospel group—in music and in spirituality.
I'm not sure how one goes about picking the best of Danielson, since they've obviously the furthest thing from a radio band. One track is often as good (or strange) as another here. But Trying Hartz (First-Fruits '94-'04) lives up to its title and gives it the ole college try in selecting the band's highlights, resulting in a reasonable overview of the most unusual faith-based band you'll ever hear.
Perhaps the smartest decision with this two-disc set was to include a handful of live versions, which better reflect Danielson's cult appeal. "Don't You Be the Judge" is particularly telling as Smith begins by asking the audience to come up with impromptu verses for his folksy sing-along: "It should be four lines … could rhyme … doesn't have to make sense … " What follows sounds like enjoyable nonsense on the surface, but ultimately serves as a reminder to let God be our judge rather than judging one another for their shortcomings—there's method to this madness. "Sold! To the Nice Rich Man!" (recently covered by The Welcome Wagon) also demonstrates how Danielson's songs take on more life through crowd participation in vocals and handclaps.
As strange and impenetrable as many of Danielson's lyrics are, oftentimes the message still comes through. Some songs offer simple moral lessons, like lamenting how kids watch too much TV in "Idiot Boksen" or decrying profanity with "Pottymouth" (in a style amusingly reminiscent of "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri La's). Others point clearly to Smith's Christian faith, from overcoming temptation and the Devil in "Cutest Lil Dragon" to the love song for Jesus expressed in "Runnin' to Brother" ("You are my hiding place from every storm of life/You even saved me from myself"). But for every song that surprises with its message, there's always another that truly sounds pointless—"Good News for the Pus Pickers" actually expresses the gospel message beautifully, but good luck finding meaning to "Rallying the Dominoes."
Danielson's music remains an intriguing curiosity, especially nowadays during the highpoint of amateurish sounding indie folk. And there's no question that Smith's faith is evident throughout if you're willing to look hard enough, and that remains the key to enjoying this music: effort. Trying Hartz is a great starting place for Christian music fans looking for something different, but is different necessarily a good thing? That's up to the ears of the beholder.