Jesus Christ, Superstar

David Sather

IN 1 CORINTHIANS, that party-pooping apostle Paul articulates an ongoing problem with Christian rock. "If anyone speaks in tongues he is talking with God, not with men and women," he carps. "No one understands him... it is prophesy that builds up a Christian community." Like all art designed first and foremost to attract customers/converts, Christian rock usually sidelines those who express their passion in unusual ways. It is understood that musicians have to deliver prophesy, clearly and unambiguously, or--as artists from Sam Phillips to the late Mark Heard have discovered--find themselves excommunicated from Christian music's tightly monitored corporate congregation.

Which is why so much Christian rock remains so, well, God-awful. Younger mainstream bands are beginning to tone down the missionary rhetoric. But their music and concerts still end up feeling like market-savvy commercials for Christ, rather than true spiritual searches. Take the latest from arena-ready Jesus-rockers Audio Adrenaline, Some Kind of Zombie. The title track borrows liberally from U2's "Discothèque" (those Dublin messiahs may be the single biggest musical influence among Christian rock & roll acts), and per labelmates DC Talk and their Christian-rock bomb Jesus Freak, turns slurs into honor badges. The zombie in question here is the singer, who in some attempt at irony or sarcasm, or something, sings, "I'm dead to sin like some kind of zombie... I'm obliged and obey/I'm enslaved to what you say." A happy slavery, we're to believe. But I'm sorry--this is the kinda shit that always creeped me out about evangelical Christianity, and as someone raised in a Catholic home, I have a pretty high tolerance. By the time Zombie reached "Original Species"--another Bono-esque pop anthem about that theological red herring dubbed creationism ("I'm an original species/More enlightened than Nietzsche")--well, I was outta there like Lazarus.

The expression of faith is hardly the problem here; I can listen to the Swan Silvertones or Victoria Williams sing about loving the Lord until the cows come home. It's the pamphleteer's tone and generic form that's so grating. Why, I wondered, couldn't some rockin' young Jesus freak put out a record that was genuinely freaky? Enter Daniel Smith, the not-quite-patriarch of the Danielson Family, who's put out two records of lo-fi gospel strangeness so impassioned they might inspire newfound faith--not just in Christian rock, but in indie rock, and maybe even performance art, too.

A Prayer for Every Hour, credited to "Danielson," was originally a demo tape that came into the hands of Seattle's Tooth & Nail records, a Christian indie-punk label (!) that downplays its Christianity--at least in the secular marketplace. It starts out with Smith shrieking, "I'm gonna give you something that's already yours!" in a dizzy falsetto over high-tension acoustic guitar, toy xylophone, Stereolab organ, and Raincoats-style drum clatter. Later he cackles, "I'm gonna pull the wool...," then baaahhs like a lamb, and finally blurts out, "Wanna buy the bridge?" Sounding sorta like early Pere Ubu re-created as skiffle, "Nice of Me" delivers Christian generosity, imagined innocence, insider indie rock-isms, and the intimation that the whole thing might be a sham. And there is a whiff of Senior Art Project about the whole thing--appropriately, too, as the CD documented the music for Smith's senior thesis at Rutgers.

But that doesn't dilute the impact of the songs, which come off as the sound of smart(-ass?) kids using their Christianity as a tool to wrestle with the real world, not to deny it. Overflowing with joy, it's more Ecclesiastes than Corinthians: "Burn in Hart" launches into an unhinged Sonic Youth Jr. guitar squall, with Smith wailing, "I'm afraid of sex/I am not afraid to die." On "Be Your Wildman," he frets over the conflict between his loins and his brain, declares that he deserves "to be drop-kicked by my God," and finishes his unknowable love cry by imagining his wedding day. It's easily the best song about conflicted lust I've heard since Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run," and funnier to boot.

This year's follow-up is Tell Another Joke at the Ol' Choppin' Block, a more concerted effort credited to the Danielson Famile [sic]--i.e., the seven Smith siblings (ages 13 to 25), most of whom backed Smith on Prayer. This one was recorded in a real studio with Kramer, producer king of psychedelicized goof-rock (see Ween, Bongwater, etc.); it's cleaner and more focused than Prayer, but no less shaggy or charming. Our man Daniel comes out like a guilt-addled Perry Farrell on "No No No," a song that resolves in a banjo-driven hoedown to the chorus of "I love my Lord." It's a song that has been known to send clubs full of punk ne'er-do-wells into dance rapture, as can "Ye Olde Battleaxe," a touching paean to Momma Smith. Due to secular demands like junior high school, the Danielson Famile doesn't get around to much touring.

But when they do, they perform in white hospital uniforms with name badges and bright red hearts stitched to their sleeves, the better to convey what Daniel calls their "healing aspect." Preaching to the converted they're not, thank God.

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