Derek Webb could hear the backlash even before the album came out. "So, is Derek still a Christian?" he imagined fans asking the other members of Caedmon's Call after listening to the group's latest, Long Line of Leavers.
Its third nationally distributed record, which hit the shelves in October, secures the seven-member group's status as a unique contributor to and stalwart in the circle of Christian music makers. But Webb, as a songwriter, is afraid that the new album may leave listeners wondering whether music stores should stock the album near Steven Curtis Chapman or over by Counting Crows.
From the opening chord of track one, "The Only One," the album provides ample evidence that the band has transcended the boundaries of acoustic-folk, while staying attached to its roots.
Webb and Cliff Young, the Call's other front man, leave their acoustic guitars on the stand for the first song, relying instead on a clean electric strum backed by 17-year-old Josh Moore's haunting Hammond-B3 organ. "We approached each song with the intent to make it the best it could be, rather than make it fit into this folk-acoustic box," drummer Todd Bragg explained. "We've moved forward just enough that you can hear where we're going and still hear where we came from."
Where they're going seems to be a hundred different directions-from folk and lounge jazz to modern rock and 1970s Brit-pop. "The record is both diverse and intimate, just like the band," said percussionist Garett Buell. "You can actually hear every player adding their part."
The album is not without its folk tunes, however, and those showcase each member better than any of the sonic safaris. The folksiest of all is Webb's "Love is Different," where he picks away at his banjo while Moore squeezes the accordion and Cliff keeps time with rhythmic strums and frequent fret hammers. As new player Jeff Miller adds swinging bass lines, Buell tinks the cowbell, and Bragg taps the drums, the band members show their mastery of the folk genre that got them started.
"Mistake of My Life," which may be the furthest departure from the band's folk heritage, also may be the one song that puts their vocal musicianship most on display. Surprisingly, Derek pulls off a Freddy Mercury-like vibrato over the band's background vocals to give "Mistake" a sound reminiscent of Queen, Britain's rhapsodic champions of 1970s power pop.
Webb didn't set out to write a song in the tradition of bands like the Beatles or Queen. "You listen to music over the years, and you never know when it's going to come out," he said. He cites U2's The Joshua Tree and Toad the Wet Sprocket's Dulcinea as his two most important musical influences. With the sounds of these so-called "secular" artists resonating inside his head, is it any wonder he worries about a backlash from the CCM crowd? Will Caedmon's Call go the way of Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer, trying to make music that reaches more than just the evangelical subculture?
Successful mainstream producer T-Bone Burnett divides Christian artists into two types: those who write about the Light and those who write about what they see illuminated by the Light. Caedmon's Call's last two albums reflect this distinction. The band's 1999 release, 40 Acres, represents a year of theological growth in Webb's Calvinistic faith, demonstrated by songs like "Thankful" or "Faith My Eyes."
But last year "was a different kind of year" for Webb. "As a writer, I do think I write about things that reflect the gospel, but I might not write about the gospel itself….It does find its way into all the material." Leavers follows the songwriter as he tries to figure out how to deal with new experiences like painful loss, "losing" his brother to marriage in "Can't Lose You," and finding his own partner in "Love is Different" or "What You Want."
Webb says his band is called not to create the newest, most innovative style of worship but to pursue excellence and incarnate Christ in the arena of music. "What we're doing is not putting on church," he said. "A Caedmon's Call concert is ‘not a formal Sabbath day worship service.'" Yet Long Line of Leavers is strangely sacramental, exploring the mysteries of life on God's green Earth and the beauty of what God has revealed in creation. With Webb taking the lead, Caedmon's Call answers Charlie Peacock's recent challenge: "God's musically talented people should be making music everywhere and in everything, all the while never failing to serve and love the church through music."
Jesse DeConto is a staff writer for The Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Herald.