During the past five years, Danielson parted ways with his percussionists/brothers Andrew and David, and childhood buddies Chris and Ted on keys and bass/guitar respectively. Sisters Megan Slaboda and Rachel Galoway and Smith’s wife Elin still sing backup. The new group consists of Patrick Berkery (drums/percussion), Evan Mazunik (piano/organ), Joshua Stamper (bass), Sufjan Stevens (banjo/vocals), and Andrew Wilson (electric guitar). Most of the new crew hails from Smith’s Gloucester County, N.J., homebase, hence the title of the album. Following this logic, the music is more a statement of current mental balance and moving away from the past, instead of a rejiggering of old tropes.
The “traditional folk pop” journey they take may not be as rewarding or strange as older Danielson albums, but it’s definitely got some bright spots. Smith toes the line often between the avant-garde and straight-laced pop, and can’t quite zone in on which side of the fence he wants to set up his lawn chair on. On Ships, we heard a the culmination of his spastic freakiness, coiled tight like a rubber band and let loose in concentrated bursts.
Here, he’s fine with midtempo soirees (“People’s Partay“) and sunny duets (“Lil Norge”). The brass section’s Michael Cemprola ( alto and tenor saxophones), Jon Rees (baritone sax, piccolo), and Paul Arbogast (bass and tenor trombone) go for bombastic but come away with little bombast. It’s more weird musical-theater than indie rock show on “Hosanna In the Forest, “You Sleep Good Now,” and “Denominator Bluise.”
Despite these gripes, County‘s tunes are expertly and coyly arranged. The percussion section sounds even fuller than it did on Ships and Brother Is to Son. Lead single, “Grow Up,” is a classic Danielson melody that jaunts about and will stay in your head to brighten the more mundane parts of the day. The three-pronged electric guitar solo attack from Glen Galaxy (Soul-Junk), Mark Shippy (US Maple), and Chris Cohen (Cryptacize) is inspired on “But I Don’t Wanna Sing About Guitars.” At times it takes on the psychedelic miasma of earlier releases such as 1997’s Tell Another Joke at the Ol’ Choppin’ Block.
There’s a Captain Beefheart-esque playfulness on older Danielson efforts that shows up in fits and starts here. Opener “Complimentary Dismemberment Insurance” and “Grow Up” have it. Even lackadaisical curio “This Day Is a Loaf” bottles the lightning of old times. Another high mark comes much later on the LP with the ostensible Kate Bush play-on-words of a jam, “Hovering Above That Hill.” The pretty ambient drone somehow clicks with the flitting arrangement. No surprise that Serena-Maneesh‘s Emil Nikolaissen plays electric guitar on it and “Olympic Portions.” It’s a calm Danielson tune that works outside of the schemas that made him such a memorable artist in the first place.
Once one considers tunes such as “Hovering,” it’s hard to fault Smith too much for wanting to move onto a more “mature” sound. He’s said in interviews he felt restless after Ships and needed a break to unwind from all the squeaky good times of recording and hanging out with friends and God. Brother Danielson is still searching for the spiritual in the mundane. Birthday parties, domestic living, and walks amongst nature turn into enriching experiences. And if you’re wont to peruse for a spell, there’s even some lyrical darkness folded into the corners of of this fulgid and worn-in quilt of a release. Stick around for awhile. Daniel’s an amiable party host.