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Artist’s Best: Caedmon’s Call

Caedmon’s Call has had a prolific career.  In their independent years they gained a following with an acoustic folk-rock sound.  Their self-titled and 40 Acres albums were the epitome of this acoustic folk-rock sound.  With Long Line of Leavers they added different elements to their sound, including brass.  They experimented with more radio-friendly fare on Back Home.  They released two praise and worship offerings with In the Company of Angels: A Call to Worship and In the Company of Angels: The World Will Sing.  Caedmon’s Call recorded their missions experiences with the sounds of the lands they visited on Share the Well.  And they returned to their folk-rock roots with Overdressed

But what is their best work to date?  Hard to say.  Most long-term fans would probably say it’s a toss-up between their self-titled album and 40 Acres.  But here we have a winner.  And the winner is….40 Acres.  Why?  Well, there are two words that best describe 40 Acres: Rich and Layered.

Lyrically, this collection of songs pulls together Scripture and real-life experience like no other album to date.  Take the second verse of “Where I Began” (written by Aaron Tate) for example: “So you have yourself your ninety-nine/Isn’t that enough for you/Still you followed me to the shadowed valley/Carried me on your shoulders too”.  The Scripture that is most obvious is Matthew 18:12 & 13, where a shepherd leaves his 99 sheep in order to find the 1 who is lost.  The idea is that each one of us is the 1 lost sheep, and Jesus is willing to do whatever it takes to come find us.  Looking back at the lyric, though, there’s still that pesky line about “the shadowed valley”.  What shadowed valley?  Psalm 23 has the answer.  This is perhaps the most well-known Psalm of them all.  Look at verse 4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  The “shadowed valley” is the valley of the shadow of death.  In these four short lines, Tate has woven together the story of the 99 sheep and Psalm 23.  The picture he is painting is one of a wandering sheep, lost in the valley of the shadow of death, and our Shepherd is willing to leave the 99 in order to carry the lost sheep back home.  These stories are woven together seamlessly and in a way that helps us appreciate both passages better.

Or take the title track, “40 Acres” (written by Aaron Tate).  On first listen, this could be the most confusing song on the album.  It seems to be a song about rain and fields and perhaps we might simply relegate the metaphor to likening redemption to being washed by the rain.  And this is true–that is an element in the song.  But there is so much more!  In the 1860s, when African-American slaves were freed, they often times were given 40 acres and a mule in order to be able to start a new life.  Tate is using this idea to reflect on what redemption really is–not simply forgiveness of sins, but the start to a new life where everything is changed.

While layered lyrics make up the majority of the album, there are points where the lyrics are more straight-forward, but no less challenging.  The opening lines of “Shifting Sand” (Aaron Tate) are “Sometimes I believe all the lies/So I can do the things I should despise”.  Not much mystery in what is being said, but a challenging acknowledgement of reality nonetheless.  Or take these lines from “Faith My Eyes” (Derek Webb) “But I get turned around/And I mistake my happiness for blessing/And I’m blessed as the poor/Still I judge success by how I’m dressing”.  Again, the point is pretty straight-forward, but still challenging to put into practice.

The album 40 Acres is just as layered and rich musically as it is lyrically.  On the face of it, we have a pretty standard folk-rock album.  Lead guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, bass.  On the 3rd or 10th or 100th listen, though, we realize it is not quite that simple.  Some elements we know are there, but they blend so well into one song we don’t always recognize the individual elements.  Aric Nitzberg playing bass on “There You Are” is a great example of this.  The bass in the chorus moves the song along arguably as much as the lead guitar.

Another element that is easily overlooked but much appreciated is the simple fact that Caedmon’s Call has two percussionists: Tod Bragg on drums and Garett Buell on various percussion instruments.  And when I say various percussion instruments, I put the emphasis on various.  Including trash cans on “Thankful”.  I have seen Caedmon’s perform that song more than once and every time it is great fun to watch.

It’s the little musical touches that set Caedmon’s Call, and the specific album 40 Acres, apart from other folk-rock.  We’ve already noted the two percussionists.  There is Randy Holsapple on the Hammond B-3 organ.  The addition of the organ doesn’t feel like one more instrument, but it holds each song together as one cohesive piece of art.  There is Randy Holsapple’s harmonica and accordion.  There is Phil Madeira’s accordion on “Table for Two” that makes you feel like you’re really in a diner sitting at a table for two.  There is Derek Webb’s banjo on “Climb On (A Back That’s Strong)”.  There is the way the music perfectly fits with the lyric on “Daring Daylight Escape” (Derek Webb).  All these little touches put Caedmon’s Call and 40 Acres at the top of their game.

If you are a long-time listener to Caedmon’s Call, pull out this classic album (it’s been 10 years!) and give it another listen.  If you are unfamiliar with Caedmon’s Call, there is no better place to start then 40 Acres.

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