It's been five years since the last Danielson family outing, and in that time Famile friend and co-conspirator Sufjan Stevens has gone from Midwest obscurity to Lincoln Center showpiece, Christian rock bands like Switchfoot and Relient K have made inroads on the pop charts and Mel Gibson turned holy masochism into mountains of mammon. While chief Famile member Daniel Smith may share their pilgrims 'faith, it's unlikely that he'll duplicate their success. Smith's approach to songwriting is decidedly cockeyed, but that's one of the things that makes Ships such a singular treasure. Joyful, raucous, rowdy and triumphant, Ships is the best Danielson record by miles, full of odd angles and strange angels and the kind of childlike guilelessness that guides camels through drinking straws.
The record isn't credited to the Famile proper because it's a collaboration — members of Deerhoof, Why? and Serena Maneesh show up to strum and to sing — but the soul of Ships is unquestionably Smith's. It's his rapturous yelp that directs the action and his screwball guitar playing that dictates the songs 'structure. People gripe about Smith's singing style (somewhere between Frank Black and Blossom Dearie), but it's hard to imagine the songs here without it. He sails and soars over the cartoonish calliope whistles in "Two Sitting Ducks" and is right out in front of the massive gospel choir that materializes near the end of "Cast It at the Setting Sail." Smith is a master of the odd construction, and his compositions are magnificent labyrinths that never go where you think they will.
And ultimately, that's what makes Ships such ridiculous bliss: those weird turns, those slippery time signatures, those brass band ambushes that turn up mid-song and pack the same giddy shock as a puppet from a jack-in-the-box. More than just a stylistic contrivance, the weird assembly of Smith's songs is part of their charm — they teach you how to listen to them as they go along. They start and stop, stomp and sway, some of them feeling like a series of choruses strung one right after another. Ships is a record gilded with glee, and the kind of record that demands (and rewards) participation in its strange, wonderful rapture. Or to put it another way: Make a joyful noise, all ye people.