In Brief: You go, girl! Danielle Young really shines on this album. The band overall, while musically subdued, seems to have grown a lot when given complete creative freedom.
“Behind every great man is a great woman… wishing he’d get the hell out of her way!”
I wish I knew who to attribute that quote to. I must have seen it on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker somewhere, ages ago. It’s always made me chuckle. Even though I don’t think all men are intentionally out to perpetuate this, the reality is that it’s a lot easier for men to gain recognition in certain fields than it is for women. I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is as bad in music or in pop culture as it is in more academic fields… put a woman at the front of a rock band and the general public will actually be hard-pressed to name any of the men in the band. All the same, I’ve seen several cases where a band has a woman in it, not necessarily up front, but just there for background vocal and/or instrumental support, and I’ve always wondered if she might be capable of more than the band was giving her the chance to do. Caedmon’s Call, a Christian folk/rock outfit that’s been a favorite of mine since college is often a good example of this. Not because of any overt attempt to hold a woman back, but just because it can take time for a non-fronting member of any band to find their voice.
The basic ingredients for Caedmon’s call’s music have always been the following: Three lead vocalists (occasionally four), with a man and his wife at the core of the band, plus a plentiful but uncluttered array of mostly acoustic instruments, plus bass and dual percussionists bringing up the rear. Generally six or seven guys, one woman. Early on, it baffled me that they didn’t give their lone female member the spotlight more often. Danielle Young almost always provides highlights whenever she takes the lead on one of the group’s songs, yet on their first several major label albums, this was only done for two, maybe three songs a piece. Her creative participation in the band was almost zip, aside from her lone songwriting contribution, “Piece of Glass”, which found its way onto an EP and was later given a greater chance to be noticed on the full-length album Long Line of Leavers. It was an amazingly honest song, written from the point of view of a bulimic woman, and it left me hoping for more from Danielle. But alas, I’d go to concerts and there she’d be during so many of the male-fronted songs, just sitting on that stool with a blank expression, maybe contributing an egg shaker if she was lucky. You’ve got her on stage, so might as well use her or else let her watch from somewhere less conspicuously awkward, right?
After the band’s most versatile and provocative songwriter, Derek Webb, left the band in 2003, Danielle did start to get more leads, but her husband Cliff Young took the lion’s share of them. With Cliff also not being much of a songwriter, this left the band in a weird position where most of their material was being written by outside people. Andy Osenga joined to take up the slack for Derek, and at that point the songwriting started to become a little more “in-house” during a period which included the band’s most intriguing album, Share the Well. That was a pretty radical departure, though, and the band proceeded to reconfigure itself a few times as Derek came back, they experimented with all four vocalists taking leads on Overdressed, and then Andy took off to return to his solo gig, leaving the three original vocalists back where they started. The group took this as an opportunity to get in the wayback machine, which led to the surprising move of subbing out long-time keyboardist and songwriter Josh Moore with their original organ/keyboard player, Randy Holsapple. This makes bassist Jeff Miller (who joined in 2000 when Josh did) the only non-original member to participate in the album.
Alright, so I got off track with the shuffling band roster there. What does this have to do with Danielle finding her voice as a member of the band? Well, they decided to keep the songwriting entirely among members of the band this time, and Danielle apparently found a wellspring of good song ideas within herself. Under the tutelage of Derek Webb and his wife Sandra McCracken (who in the past wrote several of the “Danielle songs” for the group), she ended up penning roughly half of the new album. Her husband Cliff started to find his voice as well, contributing to a song or two, whereas in the past his efforts had mostly been limited to tweaking and arranging songs written by others. Webb and McCracken (who might as well be an adjunct member of the band at this point) contributed some material as well, as did Jeff Miller, and for the first time, drummer Todd Bragg. Derek Webb pulled double duty as producer here, and the result is an album with more of a “community” feel than most of their work, which sort of fulfills a wish that I had in the old days, almost inverting the structure of the band in that it makes Danielle the de facto lead singer.
What also interesting is that Caedmon’s Call went back to the spirit of those early albums, in a sense, while not sounding like those old favorite albums, or really like much of anything that you’d consider the typical Caedmon’s Call sound. While the music all fits squarely into the category of folk/rock, the results are much heavier on the “folk” end of the spectrum, with poppy melodies here and there, but a lot less of the up-tempo material that scored the band hits in the old days. That might disappoint those looking for another “Lead of Love” or “Thankful” – and indeed, I was a bit baffled at first, because it doesn’t seem like the kind of move that would be logical for a band with two percussionists to make. However, it puts the focus on the songwriting and emphatically not on aiming at radio hits – which is just as well, since the album is being distributed almost entirely in digital format (with a very limited run of physical copies for the true diehard fans), independently from the band’s website. So there’s a fair share of melodies that meander and songs that ask you to examine what’s being said rather than just getting stuck on a hook. It has the unfortunate side effect of making the album hard to distinguish from track to track at first, especially with a glut of ballads in 6/8 time in the back half, but the alternating vocals leads do help to mitigate that somewhat (Danielle on literally every even-numbered track, with Cliff, Derek, or a combination of the two fronting the odd ones). What results from this is an album that might not be their most emotionally resonant (though I do connect strongly with a few songs) or musically thrilling effort, but that certainly takes their songwriting prowess to a new level. This is a band that is comfortable expressing its faith clearly, but that is also comfortable with unexpected metaphors and stories that don’t give away their morals easily. I feel like this is the sort of thing that you get when you let people write what’s on their heart instead of pressuring them to create simplistic “worship songs” for Christian radio. For perhaps the first time in a solid decade, I hear absolutely nothing on this record that even remotely resembles a “worship song”. For a band whose most commercially successful album was a somewhat tedious collection of modern hymns and praise songs, and whose last record for a major label was a sequel to that collection that they were basically strong-armed into making, you can trust me when I say that this is a very good thing. Those looking for simplistic Christian radio fodder can look elsewhere.
1. Sometimes a Beggar
“Take the time, think it through. Thirty coins can bury you.” This parable, sung to the simple but effective sound of acoustic guitars strumming in 6/8, is an effective start for a record that’s about as far from commercial as anything in the Caedmon’s Call catalogue. Nothing’s musically weird about it, but it’s not immediately poppy, either, with a chorus that seems like more of an outgrowth from the verse, a continuation of the same train of musical thought, rather than a big “gotcha!” Subtly, but effectively, Cliff Young (who traditionally opens every Caedmon’s Call album, save for the curveball they threw on Overdressed with Derek Webb’s “Trouble”) sings of a higher calling, a heavenly muse who provides words but no promise of success. “Sometimes a beggar has more to say”, he harmonizes with Derek in the chorus. While these two men have backed each other up on vocals for many years, hearing both their voices at the forefront brings to mind the glory days of songs like “This World” and “Not Enough”, where they’d share lead parts. The difference between the “Cliff songs” and “Derek songs” became so striking over the years that I really, really started to miss hearing them collaborate like this.
The first of Danielle’s many lead vocals happens on the album’s most’s up-tempo track (another averted expectation, since her more rare spotlights in the old days were often ballads), which has a little bit of zing to it without completely taking off running. There’s a slight amount of quirkiness, but nothing on the level of, say, Long Line of Leavers. Getting a glimpse into her psyche via songwriting, as she highlights people’s fascination with a woman who can seemingly do no wrong, who is fully self-sufficient and leaves the guys trying to woo her at a complete loss. Underneath the admiration, the other women probably hate her. I’m not sure what this is a commentary on – I thought it might be about radical feminism at first, but that’d be an odd statement for a band that just moved its female singer into the spotlight. The song is intriguing precisely because I don’t quite know what this super-woman’s deal is.
A groovy little drum loop and a bit of banjo plucking get Derek headed in the right direction for a song that seems, on the surface, to simply be about the joy of reuniting with relatives. We’ve heard shades of this theme from Derek before in “Faith My Eyes”, but on a deeper level, I feel like he’s really writing about his reunion with the band after a period of self-imposed exile due to knowing the Christian music world either wouldn’t understand or wouldn’t accept what he had to say. (Which is generally true with each solo album that he puts out, though he’ll have his staunch defenders among the more intellectual of us). I see this as a celebration of setting aside the tough love for a bit and just coming back together with the people who are still your brothers and sisters, even if you don’t agree with them. We do this to a great extent for our blood relatives on many occasions, so why not our Church family? The bridge gives us what is perhaps one of Derek’s most poignant observations thus far: “Who’s my brother? Who’s my sister? Those who I cannot sell anything; those who cannot buy my love.”
4. Miss You
Some Caedmon’s Call fans seem to consider this ballad to be a misplaced track that brings the album to a screeching halt. I beg to differ. While it does seem stark in comparison to the more musically colorful songs that surround it, with its muted acoustic intro and sparse instrumentation, I think it’s needed to put the focus on the troubled relationship at the center of the song. Again, a woman is our protagonist, and her story offers no easy explanations. Heartbreak is alluded to in her past, then an attempt to console the hurt with a relationship that apparently looks good on paper. “She took a lover, she took the medicine/She took another, but all she thought about was him.” Well, that gets a few raised eyebrows, right? Christian bands don’t write about love triangles all that often. Danielle’s lyrics are abstract enough in the second verse that it’s not really clear how the situation resolves, who the woman chooses and which life she leaves behind. But there’s a beautiful sense of aching in the words “I miss you, and I need to, ’cause when I’m back in your arms, it’s twice as sweet”. The bridge, with its dramatic strings and odd time signature shifts, makes an interesting climax for a song that has quickly become one of my favorites by the band.
5. God’s Hometown
Cliff and Derek conspire together once again in a bizarre little song that I’m surprised and delighted to hear was actually Cliff’s brainchild. The melody is a wobbly waltz, the drums loud yet somehow muted, as if there’s a dampening layer between them and the mic, and the lyrics take one of Derek’s favorite images – the wedding dress – and put it at the center of an odd story about a woman who seems to be hiding quite a bit from her family. The man she’s marrying seems to be in on the charade – but what would newlyweds have to hide from their in-laws… and while we’re at it, how can God have a hometown? Well, think about it. These guys are from Texas; they’ve probably seen their share of conservative small towns where you maintain the status quo or get looked at funny. And along comes this woman who, afraid of being found out, does the following: “When earnest comes knocking, she jumps in the closet and stays just outta sight. It’s there she confesses, surrounded by dresses that make her feel alright.” Things that make you go Hmmmmmm.
6. Come with Me
The next of Danielle’s songs is more piano-based, the chords setting up an ominous melody, which Danielle’s voice wraps around beautifully as it glides up and down once the chorus sets it in motion. The imagery of sirens is back again, making this song an interesting companion to “Sometimes a Beggar”, as it seems to confront the band’s wrestling with the public’s image of them from Danielle’s perspective. To hear her tell it, she simply needs a break – a soothing place of rest to settle into, where she can be herself and not have people expecting her to be superhuman or judging her motivations or beliefs. “Take your relief from these stones and this fame; your fall will be broken with faith.” Sounds like a sweet deal to me. I like how the song very suddenly falls off into nothing at the end.
7. Streets of Gold
It sort of baffles me here that even when they return to more of the conventional Caedmon’s Call guitar strum and melodic structure, the percussion is still subdued – it’s as it it’s a bad thing for Todd Bragg to drum like he’s in a rock band. (On the upside, percussionist Garrett Buell must be enjoying not getting buried for a change – it’s probably the first time since Share the Well that he’s helped to shape so many songs.) That’s makes this song feel a little bit like it lacks the push that it needs to stand out, but for what it is, it’s still interesting. Cliff’s lyrics come about as close to a “protest song” as the band has in a good while – just get a load of this couplet: “And the rain falls down this government line, while the suits get a room at a hotel, wasting time.” A bit blunt, but sort of charming in an old-school way. The reality of the American economy has hit the band, and they’re weighing the value of treasures on Earth vs. treasures stored up in Heaven, and looking forward to the latter while admitting that stretching cash to make ends meet in this world is still a pain. Which is not to say that the band members themselves are in the poor house – but at the same time, I think it’s easy to get this image in our heads of musicians living like rock stars just because they’re well-known enough for us to recognize their names, when the reality – especially in Christian music – is that all but the top tier will find it a struggle to keep the dream alive while only working one job.
8. Time Inside Out
This is where the album – which is otherwise excellent – starts to drag for me. That’s no fault of the songwriting, which seems to simply describe a village of poor people making beautiful art out of rudimentary implements, something timeless out of something temporary, an image with apparently struck Danielle enough to make it worth writing a lyric about it. But the even-tempered strumming in 6/8 and the stripped-down percussion make it not too easy to distinguish from other songs on the record.
9. I Need a Builder
Interesting things can happen when a band lets their drummer start writing the songs… just ask Ringo Starr. “Interesting” doesn’t necessarily mean good, though, as evidenced by this contribution from Todd Bragg. I respect the guy for trying to do something different, and I respect Derek Webb for stretching himself to sing it. I’m accustomed to a fair amount of “acquiring the taste” when it comes to Derek’s vocals, because I’ve heard him try everything from creaky Wilco vocals to a full-throated rock scream. But falsetto… well, that’s new. His voice jumps to these odd nigh notes as this song’s tricky melody wavers about – and sometimes he doesn’t quite hit them. Danielle does her best to harmonize, but she too sounds like she’s grabbing notes at random. I can sort of get into the coffeehouse-flavored experimentation, and hey, there’s a cute string section, so that’s something. As metaphors go, the comparison of constructing a house to nurturing a family isn’t a bad one, but I feel like this subject was better handled in a few songs on Overdressed. The unfortunate timing of this being a 6/8 song sandwiched in between two others also just serves to drag the other two down, since this is the weird one you’ll notice while the comparatively more normal ones take the same rhythm and general pace.
10. David Waits
Strings are once again prominent here, on another Danielle ballad which would have been better served if it were placed farther away from the similar “Time Inside Out”. I didn’t give the song a fair shake at first, not really noticing the banjo plucking away and the other minutiae that make it enjoyable, if not an obvious standout. Danielle’s caught up once again with the beauty of making things, describing the image of God that’s there inside the artist as he ponders his slab of marble, knowing that his own personal equivalent of Michelangelo’s David is in there somewhere. I have a soft spot for songs that hold up creativity itself as a virtue given by a creative God, so that helps to elevate this one above the ordinary for me. But the pacing of the album is the big thing that brings it back down to a level of mere “like” rather than “love”.
11. Raising Up the Dead
The title track, buried as far back as it is in the album, brings a little bit of life back into the proceedings. (Hey, accidental pun! Go me!) It contrasts a verse of uncluttered acoustic guitar picking and a little bit of glockenspiel with a more earthy chorus, driven by a rhythm of stomping and clapping. As with the best tracks on this album, another strange woman is the focus of the song – this time one who’s so determined to see God that she drives her car into a freaking lake. She goes out of control in the hopes that he will take control, I suppose. Caedmon’s Call has taken some flak from those who picked up on some of their statements of faith in the early days, for focusing less on “Reformed Theology” in the lyrics as time has gone by, but listen closely and it’s still subtly there: “When you don’t know where you are, following the light is not a choice.”
I’m having a tough time making up my mind about the six-minute ballad that closes the album. it clearly wants to go for the big finish with the epic coda, and that’s actually not a trick that Caedmon’s Call has tried to pull terribly often – “Mother India” and “Hold the Light” are the only other “epic ballads” of theirs that I can think of. Maybe “Somewhere North” if I really stretch it. The setup is divine – Danielle’s written some bold lyrics about the concept of grace and the weight that we put upon ourselves when we expect to somehow earn salvation. It’s easy to listen to this and be reminded, “Oh yeah, this is supposed to be why I’m a Christian”, and I figure it’s probably for that reason that some Caedmon’s fans have connected to this one to the point of calling it the band’s best song. There’s this simple three-note riff that interrupts the verses and the chorus time and time again, played on a different instrument each time until seemingly every band member has had a crack at it. And the melody knows when to shift from major into minor just to give it that little lift as the verse transitions to the chorus. It’s got all the makings of a big finish. So what’s the problem? One word: “Free”. That word, repeated four times, is all we get for a chorus. Danielle sounds lovely, and fully convicted of the meaning of the word, singing it. But repeating it with little variation for the better part of the song gets weary – it feels like a fake climax concocted because the band didn’t quite know how to build anything else on top of that chorus. When you’ve got six minutes, you have time to break for a bridge (the pre-chorus after the second verse sort of counts, but it’s too early in the song to scratch the restless itch I’m feeling here), or layer on a secondary chorus or some other vocal part to give contrast to the simple, repeating one. Without something like that, it just feels like a normal-length song dragged out to feel like it’s a more magnificent construction than it really is. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a good song and I find myself in a good mood when it ends on that majestic organ chord. But they could have done more with it.
And that’s sort of how I feel about the album – good overall, even great at some points, but they could have done more with it. In a way, this was Caedmon’s Call’s shot at redefining themselves, at saying, “Here’s the artistic statement we want to make with no outside influence”. They wrote some solid lyrics in their bid to do this, but the music isn’t always begging to be noticed. I’ll take the subtle swerves away from audience expectations over simplistic praise songs everyday, which puts this album far above Back Home and both In the Company of Angels records in my book. But since it’s not unified enough to make the kind of statement that Share the Well did, or as all-around solid in terms of the full-band sound as the self-titled or 40 Acres, I’m sticking with a B for this one. Next time hopefully they’ll collect the best songs and then pay a little more attention to how well they all fit together from front to back. And I’m confident that there will be a next time, because no hiatus or revolving member roster seems to keep whoever’s currently in the band from working really well together.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sometimes a Beggar $1
Miss You $2
God’s Hometown $1.50
Come with Me $1.50
Streets of Gold $1
Time Inside Out $.50
I Need a Builder $.50
David Waits $1
Raising Up the Dead $1.50
Danielle Young: Vocals
Cliff Young: Vocals, guitars
Derek Webb: Vocals, guitars, banjo
Randy Holsapple: Keyboards, organ
Jeff Miller: Bass
Todd Bragg: Drums
Garrett Buell: Percussion
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Originally published on Epinions.com.