The first music heard from Daniel Smith began its life as his college thesis and evolved from there into a multifaceted rock group based around his family, incorporating esoteric musical arrangements, religious parables and the spectacle of Smith occasionally dressed as a tree. His vocal delivery was something of an acquired taste — the word “yelp” could be used to describe it with some accuracy. It was interesting, but oftentimes contentious, the source for abundant debate as to whether or not the quirkier aspects of Smith’s discography (released, depending on the musicians involved, as Danielson, Brother Danielson, and the Danielson Familie) were appealing or annoying. In 2006 came Ships, released under the Danielson moniker, with a number of guest musicians, a wider musical scope, and a subtle shift in focus — from preacher to mystic. It was a maneuver that paid off: Ships was recognizable as Smith’s work, but felt simultaneously more focused and much broader in scope.
On first listen, The Best of Gloucester County — the first album of new work from Smith in five years — feels like a return to his more eccentric sound. Songs like “People’s Partay” and “Complimentary Dismemberment Insurance” proceed briskly, Smith’s vocals chirping, the lyrics blending spiritual references and more than a little wordplay. Some of the best moments here recall, oddly, Frank Black’s early solo work — specifically, the sound of someone with an unexpected vocal delivery learning how to take that in unexpectedly moody directions. “Grow Up” finds Smith in pinpoint control of his voice, shifting it from aggressively peppy to more contemplative, and it works quite well. And there’s a hypnotic banjo part (via Sufjan Stevens) that anchors “You Sleep Good Now.”
As the album moves into its second half, Smith pulls off a striking reversal of expectations, shifting out of the poppier elements heard thus far. It isn’t a transition to the more expansive sound of Ships — rather, it’s a move out of verse/chorus/verse altogether and into a compositional model incorporating a substantial drone influence. “Hovering Above That Hill” opens with layers of notes chimed via piano and Smith’s vocals made as ethereal as possible. It brings the outsider-artist aspect of his vocal delivery to one logical end point, and rather than being frustrating, it fits perfectly in with the bliss/anguish divide established here. And the album’s concluding number — the blissful, pastoral “Hosanna in the Forest” — is appealingly restrained and, ultimately, quite moving. And in the end, it’s the restraint, control, and unlikely expansiveness that make The Best of Gloucester County a strong and surreal step forward for Smith and his band.