We welcome the return of Josh Crutchmer (reach him on Twitter @jcrutchmer) as guest columnist. As today, the first album of original material hits the street from Cody Canada and The Departed. The album is called Adventus, and it rocks hard. Our video is from March during SXSW 2012, a tune so new at the time that the working title is not ultimately what the song came to be called. Cody told us "Your Brother And You" but on the new album you will find it as "250,000 Things." From the Fog Bank, here is the Music Fog version, and here is Josh with an "anti-review" of the album.
By Josh Crutchmer
There are exactly eight possible ways I could write a review of Adventus, the second album — and first original work — released by The Departed.
Look it up in the online encyclopedia: Turns out, only eight types of review exist in all of music. There are good ones: “It’s groundbreaking,” “This album rocks.” There are bad ones: The truly angry, “Don’t waste your money,” or the less-biting “Not what you’d expect from this band.” Don’t forget the two that try to out-artist the artist: “Departed vocalist Cody Canada has something to say, and he hopes you listen,” or “Cody Canada had no idea what to expect when he walked into the studio.”
My personal favorite two are the ones that just string words along in a row and hope they make sense: “This album is a bit rough around the edges but with a soulful touch.” and “It’s hard to pin this music down, but I tell you what, it’s definitely not Cross Canadian Ragweed.”
After that, you’re out of review possibilities. Turn the page and read the News of the Strange feature or dollar movie listings.
There’s nothing wrong with this, it should be said. 99-plus percent of all albums in existence can be molded into one of those reviews. They’re essential to both the music business and the human need to put art into perspective.
Thus, in the midst of a post-show discussion with Departed members and well-wishing fans in Des Moines last month, I said out loud (for some reason) that I didn’t think I could review Adventus, and that I didn’t think I could take any review I saw seriously.
My point was, and is, sometimes you can shoehorn an album into a canned review at the expense of the music itself. What, exactly, is one to do when the same hyperbole that was used a week ago in a review of some other, merely good album, now is not adequate to describe music that reaches actual, genuine greatness? Do you make up new words?
When you’re confronted with actual genius, but last week you wrote that Sir Singalong And The Four Wheelers’ debut album, Kickin’ Lone Star Tail, was genius, too, you devalue the damn word “genius.”
But this is essentially the problem with reviewing Adventus: The moment you start focusing on what kind of statement it’s making, or the second you start wondering if Cody Canada really does have something to say, or what he was expecting when he walked into the studio, you start thinking about how the album fits some abstract concept, and you stop listening to it.
I’m not the first or last writer to posit (correctly) that occasionally some facet of life comes along that doesn’t fit socially-accepted methods of taking it in. But that’s what Adventus boils down to: If you start comparing it to its contemporaries, or wondering how it may have sounded in a band that no longer exists, you’ve overthought it.
This album is meant to be heard, taken in over and over. End of discussion.
First for the songwriting. Then for the vocals of Canada, Seth James and Jeremy Plato. Then again for Canada and James on guitar and Plato on bass. Then for Steve Littleton’s keyboards. And for Chris Doege’s drums. And then, you go back and listen one more time, finding nuance that frankly all genres of Americana could use more of.
Just this once, maybe it’s best to just pick it up and listen. Forget the reviews. This album has too many elements working on different levels to boil down to a few paragraphs. It needs an anti-review.
For me, Adventus was the first time since 2000 I heard one of Canada’s albums all at once, and I had absolutely no clue what to expect. What follows is my one-sentence reaction to each track, and in keeping in anti-review spirit, no more than that:
• Worth The Fight (Canada, James, Plato): The writing and Canada’s defiant vocals let the listener decide how personal it gets and whether to let the keys and guitars inspire a rocked-out rage or just take in the lyrics.
• Burden (Canada, James): The ballad takes James’ assertive, bluesy vocals, wraps them in rock, and smothers them in funky sauce and showcases smart songwriting.
• Prayer for the Lonely (James): Guessing here that a good third of Adventus fans will mark this showcase of James’ writing and vocals up as their favorite on the album.
• Blackhorse Mary (Canada, James): The lyrics tell a story, Canada takes an edge off his lead vocals and Littleton’s keys stand out in a classic Red Dirt delivery of one of the first songs Canada and James wrote together.
• Hard to Find (Canada, James, Plato): Like with Burden, the smart writing on this song takes a classic approach (“I have found lonely’s cure”) and makes it sound fresh.
• Hobo (James, Bill Whitbeck): Plato — the most “80’s metal” member of the band — would, of course, be the one whose lead vocals offer folk-twang levity to the album, spurred on by lyrics that again provide a fresh take on an old feeling and Canada obviously having a blast on harmonica.
• Flagpole (Canada, James, Littleton): This is another song that leaves it to the listener to decide whether to imagine a renegade love story or rock band that’s been around, say, two years and finds itself under constant scrutiny at every turn.
• Cold Hard Fact (Canada): No creative license on the listener’s part is needed here, as Canada unleashes the album’s most powerful cut (and it’s not even close) with biting vocals: If he’s in a stare-down with former friends and fans over what he’s become, he’s not blinking.
• Demons (James, Wade Bowen): You’re hard-pressed to find a songwriter who puts heartache more eloquently than Bowen, and James once again fires off commanding vocals that leave no doubt how the heart-worn protagonist’s night will end (“Calling all demons,” natch).
• Set it Free (Canada): There’s nothing wrong with the lyrics or vocals in this move-on song from Canada, but the five-piece harmony is front and center here, especially Doege on the drums.
• Better Get Right (James, Mike Henderson): Gospel meets the Tulsa Sound as James takes lead and the keys and bass make this song, for lack of a better phrase, ass-shakingly spiritual.
• 250,000 Things (Canada): Canada rips his heart out and throws it under a spotlight in this acoustic track, written for his youngest son, Willy, showcasing the heartache of a father leaving his kids for three weeks on the road, and the elation of returning from the same.
• Mark it Wrong (Full band, plus producer Adam Odor): An all-instrumental track that is musically the “You have to freaking hear this” of an album that may as well be translated from Latin as “You have to freaking hear this.” (It’s not. Adventus means “arrival.)
• Sweet Lord (James, Littleton): James closes the album on this acoustic bit of repentance that could be as simple as unrequited love or as complex as an entire life gone awry.
This was a long way to say, just once, reviews be damned when “You have to freaking hear this!” serves itself up. Listen to Adventus and form an opinion free of any context other than the music you’re hearing. You’ll have plenty of chances to review The Departed down the road.
This album is technically not the first Departed production, and nobody has any reason to think it stops there. The band plans to turn out enough albums to catalog. And given the musical company The Departed keeps (where nobody’s farther than a Twitter status or blog post from an all-encompassing opinion that must be shared right. this. second.) you can figure that catalog — let’s say it numbers in double digits — will have about 67 million reviewers. They’ll tweet. They’ll write. Make no mistake, they’ll have an opinion. Those who are not fans will say as much.
Those who understand — or at least appreciate — this band and this music will get their say, too. They’ll call the albums groundbreaking. Rocking. Hard-to-pin-down but definitely not Ragweed. Rough around the edges with a soulful touch. They’ll tell you Cody Canada’s got something to say and he hopes you listen.
Josh Crutchmer is an editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He has covered Oklahoma’s Red Dirt music scene since 2000.