It’d be easy to argue that getting the likes of indie heroes Sufjan Stevens and Deerhoof as your backing band is an exercise in indulgence. But the prophet that is Daniel Smith commands enough power around indie-music circles that he’s not only able to bring ‘em together (a total of about twenty musicians), but also craft something that is just so idiosyncratic and exhilirating. Shame that no one knows of him.
Musically at least, Ships is the sound of a whole bunch of musicians having a lot of fun. The album is predominantly made up of big raucous jams with oboes, flutes, trumpets and glockenspiels all just hanging out. That’s what it feels like, messy and all over the show. But it’s also brilliant. The different layers dance around with instruments peeling off and returning to the fold.
With the rather portentous opening lines of “before our time upon a noun there stood still a ship” the first track, ‘Ship the Majestic Suffix’ sets the scene with tortured lyrics (the fascinating lyrics mix humour, religion, highly distinctive imagery and stuff about ships) and a highly textured sound that unpredictably plays with loud and soft dynamics, yet somehow doesn’t lose its sense of melody. The first four tracks are killer, the personal highlight being ‘Did I Step on Your Trumpet’, with its roly-poly melody, call and response vocals and black sense of humour – “you speak so much about my casket, my body basket, did I do something wrong?”
The cinematic grandeur of the sound is so passionate, you don’t actually want the respite of the slow points. The album’s weakest track ‘When It Comes To You I’m Lazy’ sounds like Van Dyke Parks on a hangover – which is not an entirely bad thing – but in relation to the rest of the album it sits a little awkwardly. The wind picks back up and ‘Two Sitting Ducks’ brings back the momentum that lasts through until the rather cute concluding track ‘Five Stars and Two Thumbs Up’. With a fittingly chaotic ending he bids farewell with “thank you for lending me your hand, for sharing time today and I pray that all your hopes and dreams will fall in your place”. No, no, no, thank you. I insist.