Religion and rock 'n' roll have made more unsightly attempts at coupling than a chastity-belted Mandy Moore at a Promise Keepers convention. That notion was embedded in my subconscious when I took my mom to a concert and she claimed to have a spiritual awakening because the saxophonist was "really making love with his instrument." (Ewwwww, Mom, what gratuitous use of the word instrument!)
But recently, gospel revivalists the Danielson Famile have shown me the error of my ways. Their latest holy offering Fetch the Compass Kids (Secretly Canadian) makes me, as my mom would probably put it, want to wank my wah-pedal until I'm ready to receive horizontal communion with the Reverend Horton Heat. Father, I have sinned by having such impure thoughts about the Danielson Famile's music. But hallelujah, my music taste has been saved.
I realize it might be hard to make a religious-rock convert of you, heathen reader. You might begin by chiding me that Utah-senator-cum-gospel-singer Orrin Hatch didn't rock your vote, much less your world. Then you might remind me more seriously that over the past decade, Christian alternative rockers Jars of Clay, bombastic grunge preachers Creed, emo evangelists Pedro the Lion, Catholic priestess Sinead O'Connor, and a whole slew of "Jesus Rocks" bumper-sticker manufacturers have failed to make inspirational hymns seem any less bland than adult-contemporary dance music or the latest teeny-bop craze. But I ask you, if religious rock cannot be salvaged from the critics' ranks of hellfire and brimstone, then why do the Danielson Famile's songs of damnation hurt so good?
I'll tell you why: because they have important people supporting them on their latest album. People like indie über-engineer Steve Albini. And the folks at the obscure-music label Secretly Canadian. And Jesus.
But before I start getting evangelical about the Danielsons, perhaps I should write a brief chapter on their genesis. In the beginning, there was gospel music. And it was good. Sacred psalms and Beatles tunes were sung by a real famile--er, I mean family--who later called themselves Danielson, but whose surname was actually Smith. Daddy Smith--or Lenny, as he's called professionally--was a one-hit wonder on the gospel scene who engaged his sons and daughters Andrew, David, Megan, Rachel, and Daniel in Pentecostal sing-alongs.
Daniel, the eldest son, eventually composed gospel songs for his senior art thesis at Rutgers University. The final project involved him and his siblings dressing up in flower-topped antennae to play circus oompah music while Daniel sounded a demonic yawp like Frank Black surviving an exorcism. No one knows if, through Daniel's efforts, the water at surrounding frat parties was converted into boxed wine. But Daniel's professors did give him an A.
Over the years, the Danielson Famile have gone from Rutgers encores to releasing albums with the Christian punk label Tooth and Nail Records, to joining up with the Secretly Canadian label, where the indie pagans play. Considering the symbolism of the latter move, and recalling the Danielsons' recent national tours performed in matching nurse outfits (to represent the healing powers of faith), I cannot help but wonder: Have these musical faithmongers ever played doctor? Have they ever taken a few extra gulps from the communion cup? Ever spoken in tongues by French-kissing their fans? After all, many musicians are infamous for praying to their Maker on Sunday morning after guzzling their Maker's Mark on Saturday night. Ira Louvin of the Louvin Brothers often got into post-concert drunken brawls even while he sang about "The Christian Life." Johnny Cash was (and is) earnestly devout but loaded his prayers with pleas for more amphetamines. Have the Danielsons, like these country icons, ever considered adapting the fiendish ways of children of a lesser God?
Although Daniel asserts the seriousness of his faith in countless interviews, no one knows just how earnest the other Famile members are about their beliefs. But since, as of yet, there are no tabloid tales of the Danielsons' fall from grace, perhaps it is best to judge their actions by their music: Fetch the Compass Kids seems to deviate slightly from their usual Ned Flanders path.
At first the music sounds innocent enough. "We Don't Say Shut Up" is punctuated by sprightly bells and giddy whistling, and "Let Us A.B.C." sets the alphabet song to piano scales with high-school-band cymbal climaxes. But as soon as "Good News From the Pus Pickers" plays, the swanky fuzz of keyboard funk alone could make Joe Lieberman come a-runnin' with a handful of Parental Advisory stickers. This is not an Amy Grant album. This is the kind of excitable dance music that they warned you about in Footloose.
The lyrics are even more controversial (for the saintly Danielsons, anyway). Whereas on their previous album, Tri-Danielson III (Alpha), Daniel sang devotedly, "Here's the thing to understand/Pure creation's in your hand," Fetch the Compass Kids has him admitting, "My big mouth invites a beating." This is possibly due to the fact that he comes close to saying the H-E-double-hockey-sticks word on "Who the Hello," or to the fact that there are all-too-many suspicious references to a fiendish substance (as in the line "Weed out the fools' gold" on the title track, and the even more confusing chorus "Weed me, please!" on "We Don't Say Shut Up.") Cursing, drugs, and rock 'n' roll? Perhaps it is to these references that Daniel alludes on "Rallying the Dominos" as he starts to confess, "It's an incredibly confusing time" while the pious family interrupts, warning him like a Greek tragedy's chorus, "Calm down, Dan!"
Fetch the Compass Kids has fewer overt references to His Holiness and more subtle allusions to times that the Famile's faith has been tested. But perhaps making spirituality into something that is slightly cryptic can be even more subversive than outright evangelicalism. Stereo-worshipers will sing along with Fetch the Compass Kids before they realize (gasp!) that the Famile is singing about Jesus, and at that moment, the band will truly have gathered their most devout disciples.
If the Danielson Famile is pairing shocking behavior with sanctified lyrics, they are doing so more discreetly than Johnny Cash or the Louvin Brothers ever did. The only dirty deed they'd probably admit to is that, like the musician my mom swooned over, they are making love with their instruments. And because of their faith, they're making that a love supreme.