Ships Ahoy

Danielson sets course for indie paradise

When Daniel Smith began playing music with his siblings in 1995 as part of a senior thesis project at New Jersey's Rutgers University, his inspiration was God. And so it's been since then. On the handful of records he's made both as leader of the Danielson Famile (a rotating ensemble containing Smith family members as well as friends and acquaintances) and on his own as Brother Danielson, Smith has explored his relationship with Jesus Christ in great detail.

For his latest project, Ships, Smith also took inspiration from another source: Danielson: A Family Movie, filmmaker J.L. Aronson's documentary about the band. "As the movie was happening, I was realizing things about Danielson," Smith says over the phone from his New Jersey recording studio. "Different people have been coming and going in and out of Danielson over the past 11 years. What's the common thread? Me writing songs. My family's available sometimes and not available other times, and friends are available sometimes. So Ships kind of turned into a celebration of that realization."

The celebration became a big one: Ships features performances by more than 25 Danielson associates, including Smith's brothers David and Andrew; his sisters Megan and Rachel; his wife, Erin; and longtime Famile member Christian Palladino; as well as indie music bigwigs such as Sufjan Stevens, Why? and Deerhoof (who served as Smith's backing band on the first six songs he wrote and recorded for the album). It might be the best Danielson record so far. An elaborate production defined by expansive arrangements streaked with strings and horns and keyboards, it takes Smith's cracked indie-pop sound to dizzying new heights where the conviction in his notoriously distinctive voice (it might be described as a sort of nasal whinny) is satisfyingly reflected in the joyful noise swirling around him. Not unlike Stevens's similarly ambitious Illinois, Ships is the rare record in which a highly collaborative process serves to focus and intensify one individual's vision.

Danielson's Ships come in Thursday.
Danielson's Ships come in Thursday.
Dilana: "If they're going just on looks, I've won."
Danny Moloshok
Dilana: "If they're going just on looks, I've won."

"It's not a new idea," Smith says, explaining that collaboration has always been his modus operandi, even if Ships finds the method functioning on a larger scale. "It's the way I work. Half the story is me writing these songs, usually alone." (Indeed, some of the most compelling parts of Aronson's film capture Smith at work by himself in his basement lair.) "But the other half is really presenting the songs and welcoming as much input as possible."

The outfit Smith is leading on the road this summer is, by necessity, pared down: a six-piece group including two drummers, an organist and a marimba player, doing mostly stuff from Ships, along with a few older numbers. Smith acknowledges that "some of the new songs are pretty big monsters," but that with more than three weeks of rehearsals beneath their belt, he's confident they've got the material down. "It's gonna be a very full sound," he says, the excitement audible in his voice. "There'll be snapping and clapping and singing along." Danielson appears Thursday, July 6, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington Avenue, 713-862-2513.

She's A Star, Baby
A local would-be waits with hard nipples for her big break

We admit we didn't catch last season's Rockstar: INXS until toward the end, when it seemed clear that the cheesy J.D. Fortune (owner of quite the porn name) was poised to win. This year's permutation is Rockstar: Supernova, a "Tommy Lee Project" made up of Lee, former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted and guitarist Gilby Clarke, late of Guns N' Roses and the MC5. Quoth Lee of the band's name: "It's a bunch of stars colliding. And that collision is a supernova, and that's what we have here."

Riiiight. We had our TiVo set to "thumbs down" -- until we heard that a Houstonian, Dilana (ne Dilana Robichaux), had made the cut and is one of 15 contestants hoping to front Lee's big collision. Dilana, a native of South Africa who moved to Scotland and regularly gigged in the Netherlands, moved to H-town in 2001, where she's been playing spots like Shanahan's Bar & Grill and Mike's Place. When she heard about the Rockstar auditions while recording her album in Holland, she banged out the CD in 75 hours, jumped on a plane for the Austin auditions and rocked the house. The Mark Burnett-produced show debuts this week on CBS, and we were granted a few minutes with Dilana before she was whisked back to the manse where she and the other hopefuls are holed up.

"Our schedule here is so fucking crazy man, you can't breathe." Yeah, living in a decked-out mansion in L.A. must be rough. "Seriously, it's a never-ending job," she says. "If you want to work out -- and that's under supervision -- you have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. We've got cameras and mikes following us around all day long. Then there's rehearsals every day with the house band. I'm in bed by 10:30." Ten-thirty? What kind of rock star life is that? "Dude, you heard my schedule," she says. "When I win, then I can call the shots and say, 'Hey, fuckers, I'm getting up at ten."

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