Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A History of Caedmon’s Call and a Review of Their New Album, Raising Up the Dead

It took a Caedmon's Call album to break me out of my blogging silence. Go figure. Of course. Sometime soon I'll update on my life and other things, as well as, hopefully, begin a secondary blog on the Psalms that I've been working on over the summer. What follows is a history of my interaction with the band and a review of their most recent album. If I get some historical facts about the band wrong, it's all my fault (and possibly wikipedia's, which really means mine for using wikipedia).

I have been listening to Caedmon’s Call for nearly a decade. A late-comer to the CC fandom, I only started paying indepth attention to them during my senior year of high school and first year of college (2002-2004), when I was learning to play guitar. For those unfamiliar with the band and its history, this two-year time period was one of dramatic change for the group. Their first three wide-release albums, My Calm, Your Storm (Storm), Caedmon’s Call (CC), and 40 Acres (Acres), were characterized by folk-rock sensibilities, introspectively philosophical lyrics with obscure biblical references, and a deeply Calvinist theology. Their fourth album, Long Line of Leavers (Leaver, 2000), represented a musical experiment, with horns and a more “electronic” sound. It also marked a slight shift in the balance of writing between the two primary lyricists – Aaron Tate (who had always written for the band, but only played with them in the very early days of their formation) and Derek Webb. Tate’s work had dominated Storm, and they had shared about even duties on CC and Acres. Webb’s work became more dominant in Leavers, and Cliff and Danielle Young, two of the band’s lead singers, contributed more explicitly to the lyrics of a couple songs. Webb, rightly or wrongly, became known for his songs about relationship and young adult feelings of alienation.

By the time I started listening, their earlier albums could not be easily found in stores and Amazon.com was not yet in my ken. Caedmon’s also never played in my home state of Utah, as far as I know. Leavers was, therefore, the first album of theirs that I owned. It was followed by In the Company of Angels: A Call to Worship (Angels 1), an album that their record label required in lockstep with the early 2000s worship fad, but which emphasized the band’s unique musical and theological take on praise music. It also marked the beginning of Aaron Tate and Derek Webb’s departures. The group’s next effort, Back Home (Home, 2003), was basically devoid of any of Tate’s work and included only a few songs by Webb. This writing gap was filled by Randall Goodgame, Joshua Moore (who had taken over keyboard and general crazy instrument duties from Randy Holsapple back in the Leavers era), and Webb’s wife Sandra McCracken. Tate’s mythological, philosophical and biblical introspection was replaced by hymn-like language and folk storytelling. Webb left the band at this point to pursue a solo career. This also happened to be the exact time when I first went to see a Caedmon’s Call concert. They had hired an up-and-coming singer-songwriter to fill in for Webb – Andrew Osenga, who had formerly fronted the group The Normals.

I now owned Acres, Leavers, Angels 1, and Home, which meant that my exposure to Caedmon’s basically extended only slightly across the divide between Old Caedmon’s and Emerging Caedmon’s. Some fans of the band see Angels and Home as the band’s low-point. The lyrics were simpler, the sound formulaic and the band’s heart didn’t seem in the music. For me, it was all I knew. Yet I still longed for the tighter lyricism and acoustic sound of Acres. I was thrown for a loop, then, when I purchased the first album in which Osenga had a hand, Share the Well (Well, 2004). At first I hated it. This wasn’t Caedmon’s! Their earthy guitar sound had been replaced by tenor-heavy rhythms and picking, sitar-sounding electric riffs, strange drums and atmospheric background noises. Despite all of this, I decided to acclimate myself to the new sound by playing the CD over and over again. It formed the backbone of my study time for nearly a semester. Soon I fell in love with the “New” Caedmon’s. The urgency of the story in the lyrics, and the otherworldly beauty of the music captured my heart. I learned that the band had actually travelled to India, Brazil and Ecuador, recording and writing on the road, including instruments and vocals from the people and cultures they encountered. Whereas many of their previous efforts had focused thematically on God’s grace, human sin, and the individual soul, Well turned its gaze to God’s love for the whole world and justice for the poor and oppressed. But these were not faceless poor, not statistics. Instead of slamming the message through with overwhelming numbers, Caedmon’s simply told the honest, beautiful stories of the people they encountered. While Home had seemed, in some ways, directionless, a meaningless collection of one-off tales and generic do-overs of the band’s previous themes, Well utilized the same storytelling sensibilities to paint a coherent picture of parts of the world that most folks in America have never seen. Well quickly became my favorite Caedmon’s album. The strange sounds that had been off-putting now became windows into the souls of my fellow brothers and sisters, children of God.

Following this stellar music masterpiece, Caedmon’s record label forced them to produce another worship album, In the Company of Angels II: The World Will Sing (Angels 2, 2006), which also coincidentally fulfilled the band’s contract with the company, allowing them to break ties with a corporation that had pressured them to do things with which they were not comfortable. Very little of the unique, multi-cultural sound that the band had fostered while overseas had been allowed to suffuse the album, most likely do to Well’s underwhelming sales and reception. After all, above everything else, large corporations want consistency and a safe bet (see the recent penchant for sequels and reboots in Hollywood). Despite the album’s compulsory nature, I still found songs to love amidst the general dross. Most of these favorites were written by Osenga, who has become one of my favorite storytellers.

Free of their fetters, the group cast about for a year, while also dealing with the fact that many of their members were now married with children. Touring became more and more difficult and some of their earlier themes of introspective alienation did not resonate in their new family-oriented lives. At this critical juncture, Webb, who had been absent from the band for nearly four years, found himself pulled back into their music-writing field. He had grown as a writer, and as a music producer, finding his voice in social and political criticism as a musical prophet of sorts. His insightful and cutting lyrics paralleled the sense of God’s justice for the oppressed that Caedmon’s had found overseas, but directed their gaze toward the injustice in the United States in a more biting way. In a strange turn, Webb and the rest of the band had gone different routes to arrive at a similar place, which allowed them to come together again to create Overdressed (2007). This album marked another shift for the group. Musically, it was a complete mish-mash. Osenga’s spare rock sensibilities mingled with Webb’s sparse new propheticism and the world music traits from Well. Once again, I found myself put-off by the album at first. Once again I played it non-stop for weeks. Soon I found a beauty in the collision of styles and themes and sounds.

The album title described the place of our souls before God. Trying to hide our sinfulness in our good works and a thin veneer of cultural Christianity, we are overdressed. Yet it also acted as a counter-theme to the state of the band. Utterly fearless and stripped of the constraints of their label, they were laying themselves out for everyone to see. The music was messy and unrefined, yet paradoxically more pure and alive than ever before. Many of the songs ended in unstructured jam sessions, or began with odd snippets of conversation from the recording process. Lyrically, the album laid bare the personal lives of the band members in a way that had been missing since their earlier works. Issues of lust and doubt were placed alongside a recognition of God’s work in the everyday life of laundry and parenthood. Social criticism was coupled with a realization of our culpability in injustice. A grand view of the world and the recognition of the smallness of our efforts at changing it lead to a realization of God’s largness and ability to change the world’s brokenness by the slow, careful work of healing the brokenness of every soul through openness and honesty with each other. Our imperfections become clear in the light of God’s grace and love, which makes us painfully ashamed of our nakedness yet also purifies and cleanses us.

During the tour for Overdressed I was finally able to see the band in concert with both Webb and Osenga. I also purchased their first two albums and one of their Guild CDs, which are fan-centered recordings of special concerts and studio rares from their early career. I began to truly understand what had upset people about Home and the worship albums. “Early” Caedmon’s was a thinking person’s Christian folk-rock group. Their lyrics were labyrinthine and obscure, yet their music was catchy and simplistically rich. You could listen to them and simply enjoy the tight three-part harmonies, thrumming layered guitars and percussive drive. Yet, if you paid attention at all to the lyrics you were nearly forced to look up matters relating to random Old Testament texts, Greek mythology and philosophy, and Reformation theology. New testament metaphors and verses were also reinterpreted in ways that made them fresh and interesting. Take, for instance, this restatement of John 3:16: “For you so loved the unlovable/That you gave the ineffable/That who so believes the unbelievable/Will gain the unattainable,” which not only restates the the verse in terms of rhyming “able” language, but also adds some reformation theology and sets you running toward the dictionary to figure out what “ineffable means.” Or, try this mixture of mythology and hymnology: “I mount up with waxen wings/High to reach the sky/But I am no further than/Than when I first begun.” Icarus and Amazing Grace in one stanza.

After the creative explosion of Overdressed, the band focused once again on their families. Andrew Osenga left the band to pursue his own solo career, much as Webb had done five years earlier. I wondered whether there would be another album. At the end of 2009, I heard whispers that Webb had rejoined the band for another upcoming album, which he was producing, and that the songs were being written by Webb, along with Cliff and Danielle, who had written only a few before, and the bassist Jeff Miller, who had one previous writing credit. For the first time in the band’s history the songs were all being written by people who were actually performing with the band. I was stoked. Raising Up the Dead was to be a unique album. Only 1000 physical copies of the work were being produced, and were going to be sold as collector’s items. Most people would have to download the album off of the group’s website, not even through channels like iTunes. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, then, this was bascially a “fans-only” album. Unless you already knew about Caedmon’s, you wouldn’t know about this album.

In early August 2010, I downloaded Raising Up the Dead and even purchased the $50 deluxe edition, which included a t-shirt, the Guild CDs that I had missed, a Guild DVD and a physical copy of the CD, signed by the band, with lyric sheet. All of the physical materials wouldn’t arrive until September 14, so I simply listened to the CD on my computer. As with Share the Well and Overdressed, I was initially extremely disappointed. The album felt slow to me, with only medium-tempo songs. The world music influence had been laid completely by the wayside, along with some of the rock orchestration that Osenga had brought to the group. As much as I could tell from trying to catch the lyrics, much of the focus on God’s justice had also faded away. Essentially, the Caedmon’s that I had known for much of my experience with the band was gone.

Yet, once again, I decided to work through repeat listens. Once again, I was rewarded. In many ways, Raising Up the Dead feels like the Caedmon’s album that should have followed Long Line of Leavers. Themes of sin and grace have returned in strength as well as obscure lyrics and slight references to verses of scripture and even mythological notes. Despite the inclusion of some of Webb’s recent experiments with electronica and production, the album is also much more acoustic and folksy than the last few. And yet. And yet it is also feels like their most mature output to date. Instead of viewing sin and grace through college-age alienation and singleness, the songs focus on finding grace in imperfect community. Family comes through as the most important hermeneutical lens through which the band contemplates theology. The music is also extremely dense. It is not showy. It is not “radio-single” worthy. Instead it is intimate music, pondering music, music that makes you think as much as the lyrics do. It is music that requires the listener to work. It isn’t music to be memorized, like the earlier hits that hooked themselves instantly into the brain. It is music that engenders relationship. It is not the exuberance of first love, when every moment is alive and bright and memorable, but the slow beauty of marriage, when even the subtle moments mean something and the quiet rest of the other’s arms means more than flashy jewelry. It is music made of mystery, whose beauty is that you will never fully understand it, but every day you will want to learn more.

In these and numerous other ways, Raising Up the Dead represents the culmination of Caedmon’s Call’s wandering journey. Once again the title expresses both the themes of the work and the state of the band and its music. The introspection and theological heft of their early albums is combined with the themes of honesty and family from their later years. The old acoustic sound is filtered through the patience and naked dedication of Overdressed and the intricate musicality of Share the Well. The comfortable three part harmony is now sung through voices that are rougher, grainier and more expressive than the pop sound favored in their middle work. I want to follow up this post with one going through each song and what I'm currently experiencing through it. Look for that possibly tomorrow.

I regret that many will not know about this album. If you're reading this, download it from their website (caedmonscall.com). Tell your friends. Listen to it five times in a row at least. Let yourself fall in love with it. This is an album worth putting on repeat.

Thanks, as always, for your time and love, faithful readers.

6 comments:

Peter said...

This is a very well written review, and I can generally agree with it. I have not felt that any of their albums since Long Line of Leavers has quite had the same...punch? but it remains true there hasn't ever been a 'perfect' Caedmon's record, and there probably never will be. My current opinion is that Raising Up the Dead is probably a better album, overall, than Overdressed, mainly because it is fairly coherent. I appreciate your perspective on Overdressed's incoherency, but can't quite share it. Share the Well, however, I can completely agree with - I believe it is the definitive "new Caedmon's" record.

I am particularly interested to hear what thoughts you have on the song "Streets of Gold," which I find pretty much unlistenable.

Paul said...

Wow, this is phenomenal. I too first got into Caedmons 10 years ago through learning guitar. I agree with and can relate to everything in this superbly written review. I look forward to reading more of your stuff!

Marc said...

Peter and Paul - Well, I was waiting for Mary to comment, but I guess that's not going to happen!
Thank you for your comments. I agree that there hasn't ever been a 'perfect' Caedmon's record. In some ways the enjoyment of listening to them is that I (and possibly they) are still trying to figure out who and what Caedmon's is. That process of discovery has allowed me to grow with them, from a college student now to a married man. I will try to get my song-by-song post up today. I'm studying for the GRE and cleaning my apartment right now, but will hopefully have time to finish the review and post it later this afternoon.
Thanks again, guys, for your comments.

Bill said...

To Peter:

Why do you find the song, Streets Of Gold, 'unlistenable'??

I have known of Caedmon's Call for years. Liked some of their songs. But it wasn't till a couple years ago that I became a fan of Caedmon's Call.

So as a 'novice' fan, I have to say that I love Raising up the Dead.

filbert said...

I commend your willingness to listen to an album multiple times before making your judgements.

I'm not a music-phile, but I find what I like and generally stick to it. I've pretty much loved all of CC's albums. Sure, some weren't as good as others, but who am I to criticize their artistic choices? I just appreciate whatever they give us!

On the other hand, CC had a pretty profound affect on my life. I've listened to them since 1997 or so, but in 1999 as a senior in college, I decided to commit suicide. Of course, God had other plans for me and CC's music was one of the key mediums through which He spoke to me. Needless to say, I'm still around today and because of that, CC will always have a special place in my heart.

Marc said...

filbert - thanks for sharing your story. It is truly amazing that God reaches through all different mediums to communicate with us. What a blessing that CC's music was one of those mediums for you.
I've struggled with thoughts of suicide and my own feelings of inadequacy before. Music is definitely one of the things that has gotten me through.
Thank you again for your boldness in sharing. Honesty and openness are two qualities that are difficult to find, but beautiful when discovered.
Peace.