You know what I was starting to think I wouldn't find before the year 2004 ended? A new release by a veteran Christian band that actually lived up to its hype and matched the creativity and impact of its earlier recordings.
You know what I was sure I was even less likely to find? Such an album from a band that I had already pretty much written-off as adult contemporary has-beens who once had some real talent.
But even beyond that, you know what I was dead sure I wouldn't find? An album coming out of the Christian music industry that was actually important.
Man, I love it when I'm wrong.
You could say that it was probably the last chance for Caedmon's Call before I decided to label myself an ex-fan. I had been fascinated with the group when they first gained national popularity in the late 90's with their classic self-titled album and 40 Acres, and the less-liked but still intriguing Long Line of Leavers. I loved the solid blend of a full-sounding folk/rock ensemble and the theologically intricate and personally intimate songwriting of Aaron Tate and Derek Webb. And just when I had labeled the band as one of Christian music's all-around best in 2001, they went and disappointed me with a sub-par worship album. The group was genuine about it and all, and the combination of hymn texts and modern choruses drawn from various (and generally respected) sources seemed like a logical extension of the band's approach, but with Tate and Webb entirely vacant from their songwriting roles at that point, the album came across to me as rather still-born. Not surprisingly, its more bland flavor fit nicely into mainstream CCM at that point, and the years that followed resulted in another "regular" album called Back Home which sounded incredibly phoned-in, not to mention the amicable departure of Derek Webb and the apparently not-so-amicable discontinuation of their collaboration with Aaron Tate. On their own in a fickle climate, with a sound that depended more on dull pop arrangements and their youngest member Josh Moore's piano than a great folk/rock band really ought to, minus a member and both of their primary songwriters, the group was forced to make the best of it and cobble together material from Moore and whatever songwriters from the surrounding community they could get a hold of. Put that together with a pair of lackluster concerts in late 2003 (more notable for lead singer Cliff Young's babbling than for the songs played), and you can see why I was losing interest quickly.
Thank God for a much-needed flash of inspiration. 2004 found the band embarking on a rather ambitious project - a missions-oriented album utilizing indigenous singers and instruments from the countries they were visiting on trips arranged through charitable organizations such as Compassion International. The plights of poverty-stricken people in India, Ecuador and Brazil would be the focus of Share the Well. Now I know this has probably been done before by Christian artists who also had hearts for international evangelism, but this is the first instance of such a fresh and artistic expression inspired by such trips that I've managed to dig up. Thankfully, the album is a success that lives up to its hype, and the foreign instrumentation isn't just another gimmick to sell records. (I never considered Caedmon's to be a gimmick band in the first place.)
I guess this shouldn't be that much of a surprise. The seeds for an album like this were planted over the course of the group's history, in the inventive percussion of songs like "Thankful", "Hands of the Potter", and "The Kingdom", in the literate and specific songwriting style that any good folk-influenced band should know how to utilize, in percussionist Garett Buell's solo album (which was called, of all things, Foreign Mission), and in Cliff's long-winded Compassion speeches given in concerts. It's a terrible thing to admit, but I always found it difficult to believe that most people would respond positively to a lecture pitching the work of such an organization during a concert where people paid to hear a band play their songs. Not that I thought it was a bad thing to associate oneself with or anything - those people do good work all over the world. I just felt that people responded to art more so than they would to lecture. That Caedmon's Call has finally managed to capture the essence of this need (or at least a few instances of it) in a creative form such as an album of recorded music is exciting. Something about this music, even in telling everyday stories about these people's lives and how we in America respond to their needs, compels me to care in ways that I hadn't before. Not to say that I'll take my direction on how to live my life from recorded music - that'd be silly. It's more of an instance of being reminded of something in a powerful and memorable way, and wanting to respond to that "something". Something tells me I won't be the only one. And that's why I think the album is important, perhaps more so than any album to come out of CCM in... gosh, I don't know how long.
Does that automatically make the album better than everything else surrounding it in the CCM world? No. If the music was awful, I could admire the intent, but I'd still ream the album for it. Thankfully, Caedmon's Call has managed to forge an interesting blend of Western folk and some of the Eastern and South American styles that they learned about on their trips. At times, it's not as "otherworldly" as I had hoped it might be, but then I realize the point is to bridge the gap, to mesh the familiar with the unfamiliar. You might hear fewer Western-style "rock drums", but you'll hear a lot of hand percussion and interesting things being hit, and at times you'll be greeted by rich voices from some of the poorest parts of the world. The "rock" part of "folk/rock" has pretty much been dropped here, though the electric guitar makes an occasional appearance. For the most part, the folk/world music focus is a wise move, because they're not just singing about these people, they're singing with them in some cases. Hearing that sort of an influenced coupled with bright acoustic guitars is going to make some people think Paul Simon, and I guess if you transplanted Graceland out of Africa and into India and South America, that might work. Whatever the case, it's a wonderfully open and yet very intricate album where all the sounds can be easily heard, but little nooks and crannies of music reveal themselves on repeated listens just because there's so much here to process.
Songwriting-wise, Caedmon's has bounced back in a huge way here. Even on their mediocre albums, every writer has striven to communicate intelligently - it's just tough to see beyond a dull musical arrangement, especially when it's required to resolve to more of a simple and banal "worship" chorus as many of those songs from their "in-between" phase seemed to. If the last album was a lyrical mixed bag, this one somehow manages to be more cohesive despite the diversity of places and stories that inspired it. Give credit where credit is due to Josh Moore, the band's newest member Andy Osenga (who used to sing for The Normals and signed on with Caedmon's as Derek's replacement), and outside contributor Randall Goodgame (who appears to be playing the role of Aaron Tate these days, though he is a solo artist in his own right as well). Somehow, despite all of the different people who played a part in this, the little interludes that offer brief glimpses of the indigenous music in its purest form, and the different audiences that Caedmon's probably felt some pressure to please when making this album, it all melts together into a relaxing, and yet challenging, listen.
Long story short, this is one heck of a trip. It's a story that never lets you forget that it's all real.
The album opens with the background noise of an Indian village. A man can be heard singing a chorus in its native tone, which becomes the framework for the first song.
Share the Well
Some kindred keepers of this earth
On their way to join the flow
Are cast aside and left to thirst
Tell me now it is not so...
It's a happy feeling when the bongos or tables or whatever else is being hit break in and the album's theme song begins. This upbeat tune finds Cliff Young pleading with us to "Share the well, share with your brother", and it works on two levels - as a plea to the Indian people to stop treating the Dalits (members of the lowest caste) as sub-human and allow them to drink water from their wells, and also as an encouragement for Christians not to keep the "living water" all to themselves. The song is tied together with this English and also the chorus that the villager sang in the intro, which is a set of simple syllables "Je ra, je ra, je ra de je ra de je je je." It's addictive enough to defy Christian radio to play it despite having words that not everyone can understand, which I think is wonderfully clever. I like how Randall Goodgame, who wrote this one, asks us if we think the water itself knows to discriminate regarding who deserves to drink it, and tells us later that "Maybe you've got money, maybe you've got time, maybe you've got a living well that ain't never running dry." It's a nice counter to the common argument that "there's nothing we can do" - it's not even necessarily that we all have to pack up and go on these trips, but once aware of the problems that exist in these countries, we can donate money to those who are trying to help, or spread the word if we have no money, or pray, or something. As the song fades, a villager can be heard giving a brief snippet of a narrative about the oppression of his people.
There's Only One (Holy One)
It's a story like a children's tune
And it's grown familiar as the moon
So now I ride my camel high
And I'm aiming for the needle's eye...
The spliced-up electric guitar that leads into this song feels a bit out of place first, and based on the title, I was fully prepared for this to be a rote, completely Western-sounding, praise-and-worship song. The fast and unbelievably catchy acoustic strum that kicks in is a good enough hook, and Randall's lyrics seem to be painting in more theological terms, much like some of the classic stuff from Tate, but then we get to the chorus, and Cliff and his wife Danielle Young are practically wailing, "There's only OOOOOONNNNNNNEEEEE!", and it starts to sound like one of their old worship songs, only about 10 times as passionate. The real surprise is when the Brazilian-style percussion kicks in after the first chorus, nearly launching the song into the stratosphere. Suddenly, it turns from just another catchy radio single into an interpretive dance to our Creator, striking a tricky balance between the straightforward and the poetic as the song winds along, keeping things melodic and recognizable enough for Christian radio to grab a hold of this tune, but not compromising on lyrics that really hit home: "See, there's a table You've prepared, and all my enemies are there." There are times when Cliff and Danielle's voices seem to be almost straining, but I think it's more than OK in this case to prefer passion to perfection. It's a stretch, for Cliff especially, and if you like that, be prepared to hear him in a more interesting context than his usual shtick for much of this album.
On this brief interlude, a Dalit girl sings a prayer in her native tongue, and the next song can be heard fading in as she finishes.
The serpent spoke, and the world believed its venom
Now we're ten to a room, or compared to magazines...
One thing that always bugged me on past Caedmon's albums was that Danielle Young always seemed like a bit of a sideshow to Cliff and Derek. Back Home started to fix that; unfortunately, the songs that Derek's wife Sandra McCracken wrote for her weren't terribly interesting. This album finally allows Danielle to steal a little more of the spotlight from her husband (which ought to equate to fewer moments of her standing around looking bored during their concerts, since she doesn't play any instruments for the band). The first of four songs that she sings lead on is an epic that Randall and Andy put together, keeping a slower pace and more of a pensive mood, but transfixing the listener over time with subtle background touches like Jenny Farza's chanting and what seems to be the Indian version of a xylophone. The song swells into a dreamlike state that is difficult to describe as Danielle's soaring voice pleads for God to forgive her for brushing off the hardships of the Indian people and turning her face away from their pain.
International Love Song
I'm a thumb that wanders through the pages of the National Geographic
Staring at my cell phone in an airport lounge...
This song takes on a whimsical tone almost immediately with a high-tuned acoustic guitar strumming along happily as Cliff sings about some of the pictures and other memoirs that he'll have to take home with him. He seems at once amused and haunted by the far-off land that he's exploring, as if he's afraid that the people who are very real to him now will turn into faint memories over time. Danielle joins him for the chorus, and for once the two of them are singing a true duet instead of her just harmonizing with him, which kept her obscured on so many of the group's old songs. Her refrain is constant as his words completely change: "You know a perfect love is a world without hunger". That simple line sits in opposition to the other random thoughts, creating a song that dares to use unfamiliar words and phrases like "Empty as a tiffen" to personalize the song rather than just making a vague lovey-dovey message that panders to its audience.
All I Need (I Did Not Catch Her Name)
And she bragged about her boys, how they're growing into men
And how they learned the praise the Lord old style Ecuadorian
But to buy the new guitar, we had to sell the swine
See, my boys go to school on a foreign angel's dime...
Switching gears and moving us from India to Ecuador (the middle section of this album focuses on that trip, though it can seem like a bit of a distraction since the main focus here is on India - the uneven distribution of songs between the three countries is probably one of my only quibbles with this album), this song is more of a slow ballad in the vein of Caedmon's more recent stuff at first, laying down slow strokes of electric guitar and a subdued melody as Danielle sings about a woman that she met who lived on a brick floor with her children, someone whose name she can't even remember but whose story stayed with her nonetheless. Despite the poverty that this family lived in, she recounts the woman's pride in the life that she had and the sons that God blessed her with, and that joy kind of comes back and hits Danielle in the face as she repeats the woman's words - "Jesus is all I need". The instrumentation gets a little more interesting when the drums and acoustic instruments kick in later (I think I hear Andy's beloved mando-guitar in there somewhere), but then the song fades out prematurely. While it's not one of the finest moments on the album, the overall melody and theme remind me of something Andrew Peterson would have come up with, and that tends to bring a smile to my face.
Los Hermanos Count Off
The boys mentioned in the last song get to strut their stuff here with a brief little acoustic interlude which almost sounds like Nickel Creek's Chris Thile noodling around on the mandolin, before a lively shout in Spanish takes us into one of the album's most persistently happy songs.
Home for me is beneath the pine trees
That grow to be about sixty feet tall
And on the back of the SUVs is a mustang sticker
And a feeling that never leaves you alone...
The tambourine-and-handclap rhythm that drives this song is one of those things that you will just never get out of your head - it's something like shake, clap, shake, clap, shake, clap, shake-shake-shake. You can tell that Josh Moore had fun writing this one, and Cliff is having fun singing it - it's basically just about one of the Ecuadorian brothers and his life in the shadow of a volcano. Josh gets major bonus points here for pulling off some rhymes of English words with Spanish words - "volcano" and "bueno" are one example, and there's "pesos" and "say-so". I didn't know he had such clever wordplay skills. Just to sweeten the deal, a pan flute is thrown in to cap off the chorus. It's like the South American version of a jig or something! As the song eventually peters out at the end, you can hear a little studio chatter between the guys, which adds to the "loose" feel of much of the album.
Now I'm back at home, all alone, and trying to find my thoughts
About that old man so inspiring, but the TV's always on
And the phone, it won't stop ringing, and these bills, they keep on screaming
To pay for all the things that we never really needed...
Bass player Jeff Miller gets what I believe is his first writing credit here, pairing up with Andy Osenga to compose a gently picked acoustic ballad about a timeless hillside community high above Ecuador's capital, Quito. It's basically a contrast between the simplicity of these people's lifestyle and the complexity of our supposedly prosperous American lifestyle. It's often been said that those who go off on mission trips expecting to see people changed often end up changed themselves, and this song is a neat little reflection of a simple gift given back to the American travelers by the native people.
Another interlude brings us back to India with what sounds like a lively band of performers. Their music is very spirited, with lots of cheering in between the lines that they're singing, but it's also a bit jarring in between the songs that surround it. Actually, one of the guys kind of sounds like Larry from the VeggieTales, which always makes me laugh. Perhaps they could have found a way to actually work this into one of their songs - as it is, it kind of cuts awkwardly into the next tune.
Obscene idols, rickshaw cycles, cows on the highway
Honey, all the things that I have seen...
At long last, Andy Osenga gets his moment in the sun, singing lead for Caedmon's Call on a song he wrote all by himself. Truth be told, it's not that radical of a departure from his work with The Normals - maybe it's a little more upbeat, but his worn, friendly voice definitely hearkens back to some of the best soul-searching moments from his old band's records. The major difference here is lyrics are focused on the masses of people in Bombay, and how he, an ordinary type of guy from America, suddenly becomes a celebrity on such a trip. His metaphors are in top form here, describing the people around him as a sea that gravitates towards him like waves to the moon. Much like Danielle in "Mother India", he has to resist the temptation to just write them off as "a wave of statistics", but it's a bit overwhelming to try to process all of the desperate need around him. He's realizing that the rain is no discriminator, drenching the innocent along with the guilty when the monsoons come. It's an interesting parallel to the song "Share the Well", where the water that doesn't choose who it's available for is seen as a good thing instead of a bad thing.
The Innocent's Corner
Ours is a land with a terrible shortage
Of harvests to share and breathable air
And a reason to live may be too hard to find
Like a wage or a dime...
Danielle takes the lead again here for the most gripping song she's done since "Piece of Glass", singing a Josh Moore-penned tune about how the poor are starving and dying while we sit around debating what to do about it all. Answers don't come easy in this tense song, which starts off with a deceptively relaxed 6/8 rhythm but develops into something a little more busy thanks to Josh's electric guitar and a compelling drum rhythm from Todd Bragg (one of the few times he gets to go back to his regular drum kit on this record - he and Garett Buell play a bevy of ethnic instruments for this record). The song is eerie, halting its rhythm completely to allow the ambient noise of children's voices to creep in for a few seconds in the middle, and then pausing again later for a false ending before the driving rhythm kicks back in to take the song around for another lap. It's a drastically different style for Caedmon's Call even though the mood is more Western pop/rock, and it turns out to be one of my favorite tracks on a record where most of the songs are difficult to favor decisively over one another.
Jesus found your grandfather there, I heard him say
"These cows aren't scared, they're just in the way..."
This brief song, which is another upbeat acoustic tune in the vein of "International Love Song" and "Volcanoland", finds Randall and Andy collaborating with Cliff in one of his few writing credits for the band. (It disturbed me for a while that none of this band's singers were writing their lyrics, to tell you the truth.) The song tells the story of an American girl who is of Dalit descent, and who takes a trip back to India to kind of reconnect with her heritage. The place kind of scares her, but she's able to learn about her grandfather and how he was able to protest the system, find his way out, and make a better life for her in the end. This song makes great use of palm muting on the acoustic guitars for a rhythmic feel, and like "Share the Well", it has a simple foreign-language chorus - "Ta ta le le".
Punjabi Group with Joseph D'Souza
Another indigenous group can be heard making music in the background here, while a man explains in more detail about the religious reasons why the Dalits are considered to be subhuman, how they're treated as a result, and why this has become a major political problem in India. This is helpful background info for a big cause that the band is hoping to raise awareness about, but it doesn't feel like the documentary-styled narrative fits so well into the flow of the songs surrounding it. That's always the drawback with having a spoken explanation on an album - probably something that listeners need to hear once for the sake of context, but that might have been better placed on the CD-ROM portion of the disc (there is a bonus video that gives more detail about it) or written about in the liner notes.
Wings of the Morning
The ads and billboards rained in every language
The message every politician knows
When we're fed that we are nothing, we'll believe it
And then do what we are told...
That this album has remained musically intriguing as far in as track 16 is nothing short of miraculous. The band continues to meld Eastern and Western musical ideas in interesting ways, using some sort of a plucked string instrument to set up a mesmerizing but fast-paced hook for the song as Danielle begins to sing Andy and Josh's lyrics about oppression and the political motivations behind it. Much like "The Innocent's Corner", some of the words here can really sting when you connect them back to the way we treat the needy back in the United States - I never thought it would work so well for the band to get political! The song eventually ties the defiant message about being free from oppression into a verse from the Psalms that affirms God's closeness to us in the highest of heavens or the lowest of hells. All the stories of humanity and the will to live despite crushing conditions is starting to culminate here in a clear message of the amazing worth of every individual person in the eyes of God. It's a bit odd to hear how the Eastern and Western scales are blended here - as if Danielle's singing in major key even though the lead instrument keeps shifting it back to minor - but that's honestly a minor oddity. It's another great showcase for Danielle's vocals (even if they have some sort of a weird reverb thing going on at a few isolated points), and Andy even gets to duet with her for a little bit - it's wonderful to hear all three vocalists supporting each other again instead of doing their own separate things all the time.
Skin of the buffalo declared unclean
Through revolution, we'll be redeemed...
As "Wings of the Morning" dissolves into another snippet of studio chatter, the album's closing song is cued up. It's a very simple song, almost the kind of thing you'd sing around a campfire, with a call-and-response refrain that finds a group of Dalits singing the words "Sub kooch ho sak-ee dey" after each of Cliff's lines, reaffirming in their language that with God, all things are possible. Caedmon's has made their case for the humanity and worth of these people throughout the album, and here the band is making it abundantly clear that they want these voices to be heard: "Free the Dalit, free the Dalit, Prime Minister, free the Dalit." It seems a lot more like a protest song than a hymn, but when you think about it, that's kind of where Gospel songs came from - the yearning of slaves to be free. Worshipping God is kind of meaningless if we aren't carrying out God's principles here on earth, right? And one of those principles seems to me to be treating people like they're actually people, and not lifting up other idols, be they cows, or political power, or money, or the comfort or our own couches and TV's. Easy to point the finger at foreign governments, I guess, but what about us? That's kind of the subtext of a lot of this album, even though it ends with a very specific call to certain people who are in power in India. Admittedly, by doing this, the band runs the risk of the song having a limited shelf-life, kind of like some of U2's 80's songs that dealt with very specific political issues throughout the world, but then again, if the need for this song ceases to exist, I can't exactly say that's a bad thing. In any case, it'll always be a beautiful and compelling piece of music, with Danielle's shimmering vocal in the background and the simple chord sequence changing up a bit near the end just to add some added tension. They've come a long way since Derek Webb capped off Long Line of Leavers with the off-kilter "Ballad of San Francisco", but you know, this might just be the best ending to a Caedmon's Call album yet.
Of course, we've got hidden tracks - I don't think Caedmon's has done those before. Tucked away in the silence after the end of "Dalit Hymn" we have a brief, one-minute solo song from Andy Osenga about missing his wife while he's traveling in other corners of the world, which is nice, but I can see why it didn't fit into the album. Wait a bit longer and you'll get a reprise of the Mirzapur Group in full celebratory mode, which is probably one of those things that the group left on there because they were fascinated by it, but would have been too long of a break from the actual Caedmon's songs.
Man, oh man. Caedmon's Call has done such an outstanding job with this album. I can only hope that many people agree with that sentiment, and even if they don't end up caring much for the music, that they are somehow compelled to care in real and lasting ways for the "least of these" that are exemplified in these stories and songs. Maybe it won't compel everyone to hope a plane next summer and live in a shack eating rice and curry for a month or whatnot. But it will get the word out. And it may make us think about how we deal with the less fortunate in our own countries. Somehow, it's easier to care for the needy when you've actually seen their faces and heard their stories and seen them as people instead of numbers. That's what this album aims to accomplish, and the rest of us can take from there and extrapolate to our own mission fields, be they around the globe or on our own street corners. I don't want to get on a soapbox or anything, but I'm glad that Caedmon's Call has found a way to encourage us to care, and that they haven't used what many will find to be an admirable goal as a cover-up for bad music, either.
It may be another five years before I find such a compelling intersection of true artistic expression and boldly proclaimed faith. Too often in CCM, the latter fails to see how it can be amplified by the former. If you're like me and both of these things are important to you, then I urge you to go get this album. We can only hope that it will set an example and that more Christian artists will feel free to use this as a springboard for marrying their own important messages to their God-given creative talents in new and exciting ways.
Share the Well $1.50
There's Only One (Holy One) $2
Jenny Farza/Mother India $2
International Love Song $2
All I Need (I Did Not Catch Her Name) $1
Los Hermanos Count Off $0
The Roses $2
Mirzapur Group $0
Bombay Rain $1
The Innocent's Corner $2
Punjabi Group with Joseph D'Souza $0
Wings of the Morning $2
Dalit Hymn $2
(Bonus Tracks) $.50
Todd Bragg: Drums, surdo, pandeiro, drum battery, tamborim
Garett Buell: Tablas, dholak, manjira, mixing bowl, water pail, congas, bongos, cajon, djembe, surdo, giant ganza, udu, agogo, drum battery, ankle bells, handclaps, other misc. percussion
Jeff Miller: Bass
Josh Moore: Hammond B-3 piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, nylon guitar, high strung guitar, bass, string arrangement, synth, harmonica, accordion, gopichand, ramantar, dholak, drum battery, kalimba, tamboor, backing vocals
Andrew Osenga: Acoustic guitar, electric guitar, dobro, chirango, keyboard bass, vocals
Cliff Young: Acoustic guitar, vocals
Danielle Young: Vocals