The story of Daniel Smith — at least in thumbnail form as written by his famous fan, the novelist Rick Moody — is well known to the point of obscure legend. What is more important than the trappings of hip and kitsch is that this mercurial Christian has consistently made childlike, poetic genre-defying music for almost ten years and under just as many monikers. He has managed to remain consistently inspired and worth a listen. Trying Hartz collects in two discs a sample of his work, both studio and live, a snapshot of the years 1994-2004. One man’s shrill is another man’s testimony, and Danielson certainly testifies: to the fragility and wonder of everyday life. His faith is one of gratitude and presence, not preaching and prostletyzing.
When I say his music is challenging at times, I don’t mean in the sense of avant-garde composition or in the case of dense, surreal lyrics. Danielson is challenging because his music is emotionally naked, and often it is delivered in a voice that wouldn’t be out of place on The Teletubbies. The oldest tracks, like “Flip Flop Flim Flam,” “Thanks to Noah” and “Rubbernecker,” are pop songs, but they’re also fragile ditties sung with a wide-eyed innocence that I’m sure will sound cloying to some. That tension, that sense of almost being embarrassed by and for the singer, gives these songs their odd power. Whatever the opinion, there can be no doubt that this is music made by a person who is real, flawed and fearless.
The live tracks, especially those on the second disc, are the songs that will win you over if you are still listening and still on the fence. It is when the audience has a chance to sing along, and, in the case of “Don’t You Be the Judge,” make up stanzas of their own to contribute to the song, that reputation and vision come together.
With his simple themes, poignant observations and whimsical sense of hope, Danielson creates music that resonates with everyone when they let their guard down. That sense of us all being in this together, and can move closer to one another if we so wish, is at the heart of the music on Trying Hartz. In fact, it is at the heart of all transcendent music.