There was a time when frenetic, ecstatic, and cute-to-the-point-of-obnoxious indie-pop was referred to as “twee.” Now, Animal Collective, Fiery Furnaces, Devandra Bernhardt, and their ilk are dubbed “freak folk.” In all honesty, not much has changed (it all sounds like sub-par Flaming Lips to me), but then why is it so hard to categorize Daniel Smith’s latest Danielson release Ships? A kaleidoscope of a collage of a pastiche, Ships wears its influences on its sleeve (Bowie, Flaming Lips, the Elephant 6 bands, Raffi) but unleashes its gleeful fury at such volume and velocity that it’s hard to know exactly what’s hit you. Time signatures are abandoned at will, effects pedals are punched, every instrument on God’s green Earth is plucked, beaten, blown, or strummed, and crystalline backup vocalists are omnipresent.
With nearly 40 contributors to Ships, it is no surprise that this is a loud, elaborate sounding album—perhaps what Phil Spector might be producing if he weren’t a murderer (okay, okay, alleged murderer). Sufjan Stevens, Edith Frost, Steve Albini, and members of Deerhoof, Why?, Ladytron, and Smith’s extended Danielson Familie all show up and join in the cacophony, and the results are frequently captivating, as Smith’s falsetto yelp leads the troupe like an insane marching band. The bouncy “Did I Step On Your Trumpet” is irresistible, “Two Sitting Ducks” sounds like Veggietales on acid, and “When It Comes To You I’m Lazy” is a treacly love song that deconstructs itself into a Zappa-esque squawk.
Smith’s quirky vocals are a tough sell—imagine a cross between Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous and Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse sped up Chipmunks’ style—but they’re well suited to the raucous ensemble gathered around him. Certainly, everyone sounds like they’re having loads of fun, but the result is a listen that takes a lot of work. Ships is the finest effort yet from Smith and company, and it’s sure to impress Danielson fanatics, admirers, and newcomers alike. But for all its joy and elation, Ships still sometimes feels like an assault: imagine watching Pokemon with a room full of kindergarteners while suffering the worst hangover of your life. Ships is very, very, very good, but it’s not always enjoyable.