March 01, 2004

Duvall "Volume & Density"

Josh Caterer nearly didn't make this record. After his previous band Smoking Popes released their swansong Destination:Failure, his life changed in many ways, not the least of which was turning his back on music that did not promote or proclaim his Christian beliefs. Considering the hardships in his life at the time and the newfound oasis of happiness found in conversion, it wasn't such an unreasonable desire. Of course, if you were a Smoking Popes fan, this meant the end of a really good band, but being a fan of happiness in general, it meant the start of a happier life for Caterer. Fans might have been shocked and stunned, but, to be fair, the fan's desire to hear "Need You Around" or "I Know You Love Me" doesn't override Caterer's desire to inner peace. His declaration that he'd washed his hands of secular music was a line in the sand for his faith.

When it was announced that Caterer had decided to compromise a little bit--returning to indie-rock, yet never compromising his faith--it made me extremely happy. Destination: Failure was a brilliant concept album that dealt with heartbreak, the evils of the music industry AND the joys of conversion and faith in Christ all at the same time, and will surely stand as one of the best albums of the 1990s--depending, of course, if you can find it for less than 50 bucks. It would be wrong, of course, to compare Duvall to Smoking Popes, but considering the way that Smoking Popes ended--leaving more questions than answers (especially about Caterer's well-being) as well as an unreleased (at the time) album of cover versions--it's impossible not to place the two together for comparison's sake.

Volume & Density is a very religious record, but it's very religious in much the same way as Destination: Failure--its themes are direct to those who know of Caterer's beliefs (and, really, at this point in his career, there's no way you couldn't know), but he writes in such a way that the themes carry truth on more than a spiritual level. It's a tough tightrope to walk, but Caterer can do it--Destination: Failure proved it, and Volume & Density proves that he's still got it. When he sings "Don't let your love be wasted on me/I'm no good at all/Everything I'm hoping to be/It's all in your hands/I am all in your hands" would be a great line for your typical love song, but considering the depth of his faith, it's an even greater love song---a song to God. And, yes, he does occasionally bring up the salvation in the form of evil record label issues again, especially on "Between the Lines," but Volume & Density doesn't have the same cynical, angry bite that Destination: Failure did--but that's not really the point anymore.

Soundwise, there's really not that much difference between Duvall and Smoking Popes, either--and that's understandable, because Duvall's always been more of a continuation of the Smoking Popes, especially considering that the band's always been at least 2/3rds the same band. While their sound is definitely rawer than the Popes, Duvall sounds fresh and alive and raw like the Smoking Popes of yore, but with the added benefit of maturity and wisdom. Though the devoted Popes fan--myself included--will listen to Volume & Density and will say "Oh, 'What It Is' and 'Standing At The Door' sound like Destination:Failure," if anything, Duvall's sound is fresh, and it's because he's no longer toying around with the audience about his beliefs that Caterer's lyrics have a greater depth than ever before.

But, really, it's good to see that Caterer's hasn't slouched off the one thing he does best: songwriting. It's good to know that he's no longer denying his love, which he addresses quite well "Way deep inside/I am jumping like a fire/And I'm tired of keeping it inside." I'm glad he's not keeping it inside, because it's made him a better musician. The closing song, "Jesus Never Leaves Me," is a very tender ballad--perhaps his most beautiful love song ever--and even if you're not a believer, you can't help but be moved; it's simple, utterly beautiful, heartfelt and sincere--it delivers the message of God's love in such a gentle manner, without being too preachy--and it makes you realize that if Contemporary Christian Music actually stopped forcing the artist to put the message ahead of the medium, then that particular genre would have a bit more respect than it does now.

It's said that 'by their fruits shall you know them,' and Caterer's made one very fine, very moving record that's good for Christians and even better for non-Christians, because he firmly delivers the gentle message of Christ's love, but he does so in a manner that's appealing and thought-provoking and not alienating. It's good to have Caterer back, and Volume & Density is a welcome return to a man who it was feared was done with music. It's good to see him reconcile his beliefs and his spiritual gift for songwriting. It's what he's good at, and that he can do so without feeling torn about his beliefs is indeed a blessing. One of the best Christian records I've heard in a long, long time--and may he continue to only get better.

--Joseph Kyle

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