Don't you just hate it when you get really hooked on a TV show, and then a few seasons into it, one of the biggest fan favorite characters leaves, and even if it's an amicable departure agreed upon by the actor and The Powers That Be, it becomes apparent that the show's never going to feel the same as it did in its early years? I bring this up because it's an experience that is analogous to how many fans of the folk/rock band Caedmon's Call seemed to feel when Derek Webb left the band in 2003. It's a story that I've hashed and rehashed several times, so I won't go into great detail about it here other than to say that the loss of his voice and his instrumental and songwriting talents definitely changed the band. Personally, I don't think it was for the worse (though it seemed so initially) - they picked up Andrew Osenga, former frontman for The Normals, and proceeded to put out what I thought was the best album of their career, 2004's Share the Well. Did I still miss Derek? Sure. But they proved that they could make great music without him (Derek himself cited that album as ranking among the group's best despite him having nothing to do with it), and that they could break from the format of their "classic" albums and draw listeners into a whole different musical experience where well-told stories gave listeners a better understanding of the lives of people that the members of Caedmon's had met in some of the third world countries that they had visited.
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But that was three years ago, and I've gushed more than enough about that album already. The big news now seems to be that Derek's back with Caedmon's Call. You see, somewhere along the way, the group figured out that their label, Essential Records, had done squat to promote Share the Well, and then in 2006, strong-armed the band into putting out a rather pedestrian "worship sequel" album, In the Company of Angels II, in hopes of recapturing the success of the first installment from 2001. Enough was enough. They got out of that contract and made no secret that they were glad to be free, even going so far as to label their summer 2007 tour the "Emancipation Tour". Then they signed with INO, the same label that's been putting out Derek's solo albums over the years. I'm not sure who it dawned on first - Derek or the other folks in the band - but suddenly, Derek's outspokenness and his occasionally controversial way of explaining theological concepts that mattered to him didn't pose a threat to the band's ability to stay in their record label's good graces. So his return isn't something I see as a ploy to get old fans back - it's just that he no longer had to worry that he might drag down their image. And so it came to be that Derek became a fully involved participant in the group's newest album, Overdressed.
But what's fascinating to me is not so much the fact that Derek's back, because in truth, he's really just a special guest star, with no long-term plans to remain part of the group. What's interesting is that the special guest star now gets to share top billing with both his former bandmates and the guy they brought in to replace him. I always suspected that Andrew Osenga had a little more to offer the group than he had let on so far, and of course they weren't just gonna kick him to the curb in order to free up a spot for Derek. The seven-member band simply became eight, and now they've got three guitarists, and four vocalists to shuffle in and out of the spotlight (Derek, Andy, and the group's bread-and-butter, Cliff and Danielle Young). Hearing Derek and Andy on the same record together is a treat, too - like two different periods of the band's past colliding. Indeed, they'd have suffered for it if Derek's return meant that Andy had to go - he wrote or co-wrote the lion's share of the album (along with frequent Caedmon's collaborator Randall Goodgame), while Derek and his wife Sandra McCracken handled the rest. Pretty much all of Share the Well came from the pens of Osenga, Goodgame, and keyboardist Josh Moore (who surprisingly doesn't have any writing credits this time around), so 2/3 of that team plus Webb and McCracken's gotta make this album a sure-fire winner, right?
Well, almost. There's certainly a smattering of interesting ideas, a few sounds that Caedmon's hasn't really played with before, and that lovable "community" feel that you get from hearing different vocalists take their turns at the mic (despite there being an extra voice now, they all seem to get closer to "equal time" than perhaps they ever have) on a colorful folk/rock album that breathes organically without feeling too stripped down for radio to touch. But that doesn't mean that they've completely escaped the lowlights of some of their latter work for Essential. Derek's contributions are pretty solid, but Osenga seems to have difficulties when he's writing a song for Cliff to sing as opposed to one for himself. It's always been the "Cliff songs" that have seemed more straightforward on Caedmon's albums and that have run the risk of boring me. This was not an issue on their late 90's albums, and certainly not on Share the Well, but there are moments on Overdressed that feel as cliched and unobtrusively "pleasant" as some of the most lackluster tunes on the worship albums or Back Home. That's disconcerting, because there's proof in between the so-so tunes that Osenga can write some really fantastic ones. I know that no songwriter can make 'em all winners, but the contrast is so striking that it makes me wonder if the band, despite their "emancipation", still felt some pressure to consciously play it safe here and there. Those "safe" moments just don't compare to the moments where the band gets more introspective, personal, or confrontational. You won't hear anything as surprising as some of the statements made on Derek's solo albums, but you will hear some refreshing truths that you probably already knew, but that just needed to be said.
Musically, despite what earlier rumors may have led us to expect, this ain't Share the Well 2. (It also ain't 41 Acres.) You'll hear elements of the old familiar Caedmon's sound (sometimes too much so on the straight-ahead songs led by Cliff), a little bit of the starker approach from Derek's solo albums, and the occasional "world-beat" influence of share the well plus an experimental moment or two. For the most part, it's simply an example of the band continuing to use their arsenal well - dual percussionists, a multi-talented keyboardist, and four singers who can chime in with just the right harmony or duet vocal during some of each other's songs generally make for an exciting experience than your typical four-member band where everybody has their expected role and they stay in their little box. As an overall listening experience, I'd say it definitely puts a smile on my face to hear this band doing something intelligent and creative again, but the moments where the band seems to be on auto-pilot do give me the nagging feeling that Overdressed could have been a much better comeback than it turned out to be.
We're making noise in the temple
But we're skimming off the top
And we don't want you to suffer
But you don't want to stop...
Gee, you think they want us to know Derek's back in the band? His voice is literally the first thing that jumps out of the speakers at you when you start up the CD. Returning to his favorite subject of depravity as if no time had passed since the days of songs like "Thankful", he leads the band through this laid-back, slightly bluesy shuffle of a song, with a tempo and feel similar to his solo highlight "Nobody Loves Me", minus the twang. It's a good summary of what so much of Derek's solo work has been about, actually - knowing he's being stared in the face by God, having to own up to his own petty sinfulness, and realizing that it's foolhardy to try to hide anything. The album title appears in this song when he admits, "When I'm with You, I feel so overdressed", and as it turns out, that's a subtle reference to the Garden of Eden and man's attempt to hide his sin behind clothing made of fig leaves. That explains the album cover, actually - what you're looking at is essentially the world's first underwear, and apparently that's a bit too formal for God's dress code! Anyhow, this song kind of gets things off to a slow start compared to the fuller sound of Caedmon's past albums, but I do enjoy the bluesy guitar licks during the bridge.
Need Your Love
Your love is a sunset fire, Your love is a melody
Your love is the grace that brings the sinner to his knees...
The second track bumps the tempo up and gives us one of Caedmon's typical, more free-flowing, acoustic/electric anthems, akin to the style you heard on much of Back Home or 40 Acres. It's essentially a praise song sung by Cliff and written by Andy (who harmonizes nicely with Cliff during the chorus and bridge, actually), and it makes some simple but effective analogies about beautiful things that God resembles, before jumping to a rather phone-in chorus of "I need Your love, Your love, I need Your love to stay with me." It's rather youth-groupy and disappointing in comparison to the descriptive phrasing I know this band to be capable of, and quite honestly, I never understood why so many modern worship songs have spent so much effort on asking God to be with us, stay with us, continue loving us, etc., because it's kind of a given that all of those things would be true even if we didn't want them to be. It's not bad theology, really - just lazy songwriting.
This house is a good mess
It's the proof of life
No way would I trade jobs
But it don't pay overtime...
Here's some songwriting that's a bit less lazy. Danielle gets to sing lead on one of the most upbeat and perky tunes on the album (she quite often gets the reflective ballads, so this is a welcome change). And the funny thing is, this song'll probably be a hit with the "soccer mom" audience that has come to discover Caedmon's Call more recently, but it does so without being generic or unintelligent, because this is actually a song about the specifics of being a housewife. (Ironically, it wasn't Danielle who wrote it; instead Andy teamed up with Randall Goodgame. I'm sure they must have had Danielle's input, though, given how specific to her life the lyrics seem to be.) There are clever little observations here that lend the song a slight touch of wry humor - Danielle acknowledges that being a stay-at-home-mom with two handful kids is kind of a thankless task in the world's eyes, and it certainly requires a lot more hours than any 9-to-5 job, and yet she knows it to be a huge blessing that she wouldn't trade for anything else. Only a mom would react to the abundance of "My cup runneth over" by admitting that "I worry about the stain", and it's really striking how the guys managed to describe things from her point of view without it sounding hokey. Josh Moore's piano rings out brightly during the chorus, the melody is light and swift and catchy, and there's even a clever reworking of the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy" that turns into a "wake-up song" for her kids during the bridge. People used to criticize Caedmon's Call after Derek's departure for no longer performing songs like "Table for Two" which were about singleness and dating; Cliff's response to that tended to be that they were all married with kids now. I never understood why this precluded them from writing personal songs about the phase of life they were going through now, so I really appreciate that they finally have a song about being married with kids.
And you know that we all try to blame someone
When our dreams won't rise up from their sleep
And the reaching of the steeple felt like one more
Expensive ad for something cheap...
The fourth and final lead singer of this versatile bunch gets his moment in the spotlight here with a rather quirky, cleverly written song about a dejected young man's disappointment with the Christian church. Andy drops some clever lines here, over a purposefully dry acoustic guitar strum, that hint at the "mega-church" mentality of wanting everything to look bright and shiny and sterilized and "safe for the entire family", but once you get involved you find that there's just enough sin and judgment and backbiting as there is in any other church. And this leads our protagonist, a boy letdown by his expectations, to wonder what it meant when he was told that Jesus would fill him up: "Maybe something got lost in the language. If this was full, then why bother?" He also worries that he's going to have to cotinue hiding his own sins from a group of people who can't grasp that they're really just like him. It's a painfully honest song that is inventively constructed - what appears to be the pre-chorus ("This is not the way it looked on the billboard, smiling family beaming down on the Interstate") actually turns out to be the chorus, with the main musical refrain being a rich acoustic instrumental break with the guitars, piano, and even some strings and horns flooding in to fill the empty space set up by the minimal instrumentation elsewhere. I love how the final chorus leads to an abrupt ending, too, as everything is left hanging on a solitary note from the piano.
There Is a Reason
Late at night, the darkness makes it hard to see
The history of the saints who've gone in front of me
Through famine, plague and disbelief
His hand was still upon them...
This one's another Andy/Randall collaboration, and it seeks to soothe the pain of the previous song by acknowledging that God can make good of the injustices done by others, even sometimes by the fellow Christians who can be so alienating. More rich acoustics here provide a somewhat satisfying buildup to another "typical Caedmon's Call chorus", with Cliff in the lead offering the soothing promise that "He makes all things good". I think it's a song that works better in the context of the album - by itself it seems a bit ordinary, and a bit too CCM-radio-friendly in its broad, sweeping generalizations about every type of suffering under the sun. It kind of bugs me sometimes when Christian bands allude to the vague "wondering why" without tying it to a specifically relatable situation - it's like they're trying to hit the lowest common denominator, and I'm not used to that from these guys. They can acknowledge that "There is a reason" and "a time for wonder, and to wonder why", but without some sort of logic to back up their point, it feels more like "believe it 'cause I said so" propaganda rather than a thoughtful theological take on a potentially difficult subject.
Share in the Blame
Don't blame the writer for the doubts in your head
Don't blame the preacher for the lovers in your bed...
Here comes Derek's second turn at the mic... and he's actually sharing it with Danielle. They do an interesting, down-tempo duet here - I may not be a big fan of the rather lackadaisical drumming and the sparse feel of it, but I do love hearing these two harmonize. The lyrics, written by Sandra McCracken, are tough and confrontational, telling a person to stop wasting their time focusing on what others should change, when they know deep down that they've got their own share of the blame to contemplate, and that's the only thing they can hope to have any real control over. It's weird, because the song is kind of in-your-face and blunt about these matters, and yet the musical and vocal style is very "Kum ba yah", so the end result sounds like it comes from a person who cares and not just somebody who's telling you off because it makes them feel better. There's a great bit of acoustic guitar soloing here by... well, whichever of the three guitarists that this band has in their reserves chose to step forward at that particular moment.
Hold the Light
Every Wednesday for two years we've met
I've showed you all my anger, my doubts and bitterness
There was no judgment in your eyes
Just the silent peace of God that felt so real in you...
Andy strikes gold again with this stark, confessional ballad from one man who is holding himself accountable to another, admitting that he needs that extra push from a friend during a time when he's feeling like he has so little faith that it's hard to believe in those concepts of forgiveness and grace that we Christians throw around so easily. It's a drawn-out song that builds like some of his classic ballads from his days with The Normals, such as "Grace" or "We Are the Beggars at the Foot of God's Door". And it's great to hear him take this approach as a member of Caedmon's, with Josh's piano letting a few warm rays of light shine in during the chorus, when he's basically asking this friend to carry the torch for him when he's too weak. It's a song that is personal and yet universal - pretty much anyone who's been a Christian long enough and who his honest with themselves know what these "dark periods" feel like, when you're just too worn down and frustrated with yourself or with your misplaced expectations that you're tempted not to give a crap any more... and yet there's a part of you that still wants to. While Andy's reedy vocals are a bit of an acquired taste (even for those who are familiar with Derek's slightly raspy tone), he uses his frail instrument to great effect as this song reaches its resounding climax.
Two Weeks in Africa
We put the walls up, but Jesus keeps them standing
He doesn't need us, but He lets us put our hands in
So we can see His love is bigger than you and me...
If there had been a sequel to Share the Well, I suppose this would be the type of song that would have appeared on such an album. It's very obviously a song about a short-term mission, chronicling the emotions of a girl who took a trip to Africa during her college days and found that it affected her in profound ways many years after the fact. The expected bits of African percussion and native chanting help to fill out the sonic tapestry as Caedmon's takes a fun, upbeat, percussive approach to their folk/rock style like some of Share the Well's best tracks did, and uses it to remind us that it's not about some wannabe Western saviors crossing the globe and saving people from themselves, but rather about the work that Jesus is already doing which He chooses to let us participate in, thereby changing people in places like Africa but also changing us. This is another one that Andy wrote for Cliff to sing, and it's by far the most interesting "Cliff song" on the record.
Love Grows Love
When we got the news, we had to call our families
And start painting the room a nice, bright blue
Our vows, they started breathing and they took on flesh and blood
And we held them in our arms and tasted God was good...
Here's another upbeat tune for Danielle, and this time it's about the history of a married couple, and she's singing it along with the harmony vocals of... Derek? OK, I can see taking the less obvious approach, 'cause maybe it'd have gotten too cutesy if she and Cliff were actually singing the song to each other. I actually don't know whose marriage this one describes - it could be Andy's, since he wrote it, or it could be Cliff and Danielle's, or Derek and Sandra's, or an amalgam of all three, or purely fictional. In any event, it cheerfully traces a couple's feelings for each other back to the awkwardness of high school, up through their current hectic lives with new young faces in the picture who needs taking care of and require adding extra rooms to the house and so forth. It's cute - perhaps a little too cute - but definitely heartfelt. (There's one lyric that always stymies me due to an expected rhyme in this one - during the bridge, when the line "I'm on the other side of the world to see what changed you so" is followed by "My heart breaks with the broken, and it dances with the hope", I always find myself expecting to hear, "it dances with the ho." Which totally wouldn't make sense (and come on, this is a CCM album), but it's funny anyhow.
All Across the Western World
All across the ocean wide
With brothers, neighbors at our door
Our banks are full, but our souls are poor...
This time around, Derek and Sandra apply a teeny bit of the Share the Well style (you can hear it mostly in the tribal percussion) to a song that attempts to look at the excesses of the West through the eyes of someone who's been around the world and seen real poverty. Derek keenly points out a different kind of disease that is affecting us here in this place where we seem assured of our ability to provide for ourselves - it's the disease of excess, which leads to complacency and apathy. The words are more impressionistic than instructional, offering interesting insights such as "You're only free when you have no choice", but leaving the interpretation, and the decision of what to do about it, up to the listener.
Always Been There
You're rising like the morning sun, a pillar in the night
You looked into the void and called it light...
Unfortunately, now it's time for Andy and Randall to take things down several notches and default back to the rather elementary lyrical style that both of them have provided Cliff with a little too much of already. As soon as this mid-tempo track leads off with the line, "We've all got our burdens, our secrets and our shames", it's clear that we're back in "broad sweeping generalization mode", and I suppose it's a true enough observation, but nothing really profound is being made of it. I can basically sum this one up as, "We all have problems, but God is always there and He is faithful, yay." I can't argue with any of that of course, but way to take something that I believe to be true and make me totally unexcited about it.
Doesn't it seem I'm always running
And most of the time it's not to You
All other ground is sinking sand
Give me faith to know your promises are true...
Andy gets to sing lead for the finale, which is a surprisingly upbeat tune that closes the album with a bit of a "Coming Home" sort of feel (I think their self-titled record ten years ago was the last time they closed with a "fast song", other than "Ballad of San Francisco" on Long Line of Leavers, but that one was a bit more off-kilter and non-traditional for the band). And unfortunately, he and Randall have offered up yet another generic lyric, which is a bummer, because I've come to expect the songs Andy sings for the band to be a little more raw and personal. I suppose it's not a terrible conclusion, with the words about confronting all of the mess in your past that you've been hiding from and God giving you hope to start over and all that, but I feel like these guys could have had a more striking song somewhere within them about the very same subject. I do enjoy the vocal buildup where Cliff, Danielle, and Derek all seem to be chiming in with their various parts to support Andy as the bridge builds into the final chorus. But on an intellectual level... I'm sorry, Andy, but I kind of tuned out after track 10.
So there you have it... a highly-anticipated comeback album that deserved a lot of the positive reviews it got from various Christian publications, but that throws a monkey wrench into the band's return to brilliance by also reminding us of their annoying ability to phone it in. There's some sort of a ghost here that it feels like they're still partially enslaved to - the specter of their relationship with their previous label, perhaps, or just the overall expectation that they'd continue to give Christian radio some less cerebral tunes to play without really thinking about it, because God knows one of their more confrontational and/or honest songs would bring a CHR station's play list to a screeching halt these days. There should be no one imposing such requirements on them - sure, they might be label mates with MercyMe nowadays, but Derek has already gone before them and showed INO to be a label that shows confidence in the artist to say whatever it is that they need to say. (This is true of Sara Groves to some extent as well.) Maybe they'll get over their hang-ups by the next album, but Derek will likely be gone again by that point, so here's hoping that Andy, Randall, and Josh (seriously, are you still writing songs, dude?) can bring their A-game next time around. They brought their B-game here, so it's certainly possible.
Need Your Love $.50
There Is a Reason $1
Share in the Blame $1.50
Hold the Light $2
Two Weeks in Africa $1.50
Love Grows Love $1
All Across the Western World $1.50
Always Been There $0
Start Again $.50
Cliff Young: Vocals, guitars
Danielle Young: Vocals
Derek Webb: Vocals, guitars
Andrew Osenga: Vocals, guitars
Josh Moore: Piano, organ, keyboards, accordion, harmonica
Todd Bragg: Drums
Garrett Buell: Percussion
Jeff Miller: Bass
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