The recent documentary Danielson: A Family Movie presents a positive view of alt-Christian indie-rocker Daniel Smith, detailing his decade of staging quasi-religious theatrical "happenings" in dingy nightclubs across the country. Most provocatively, director JL Aronson implies that folk-pop sensation Sufjan Stevens owes much of his shtick—the thick orchestration, the background chorales, and the costumed concerts—to his apprenticeship in The Danielson Famile. Shortly after Aronson presents a montage of Stevens' rise to critical and cult success, he shows Smith back in his home studio, sweating over the album that would become Ships (attributed to the newly renamed "Danielson").
It isn't fair to Smith to imply that Ships is Danielson's play for a Stevens-level breakout, but the record is definitely an assured, ambitious follow-up to 2004's ramshackle Brother Is To Son. A loosely connected suite of songs about seafaring and the rewards of faith, Ships expands Smith's stylistic range, augmenting his cacophonic kitchen-sink show tunes with traces of sea chanties, military marches, growly alt-country, wall-rattling punk, and on the epic "Kids Pushing Kids," the kind of Philip Glass-inspired minimalist pattern-making often employed by, yes, Sufjan Stevens.
Whatever the moniker—Danielson, Brother Danielson, or The Danielson Famile—Smith's music and message remain wholly his own. He's figured out how to maximize the rough-hewn DIY foundations of indie-rock, and how to turn a weird, snappy song like "Did I Step On Your Trumpet" into an earnest, moving self-examination. By the time he gets through the homemade opus "Bloodbook On The Half Shell," with its chiming backgrounds, breathless lyrics, heart-stopping breaks, and shrieky finale, listeners know they've really heard something.