Back in 2001, in the days before Blogcritics, I went to see a show by Josh Haden's former band Spain at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle. I was really into Spain at the time, and soaked up the whole atmosphere: the hushed reaction of the crowd, the tight performances of the band, Josh Haden's eyes-closed, stone-still performance with his bass at the vocal mic. But the reaction of my friend–a sarcastic request for "another mellow song!"–made me realize that Spain lived or died by how convincing you found its blend of slow, quiet, blues and country-inflected late night bar music and heart-on-sleeve sincerity. Certainly the band's best moments–the song "Every Time I Try," snagged by Wim Winders for the soundtrack to his film The End of Violence; their superb swan song "I Believe;" and their entire first album, The Blue Moods of Spain, all revolve around that formula.
Over time, though, their work began to feel just a little like it was a formula. And the more the sound drifted toward country, the more I felt like Josh's heart wasn't in the songwriting. The songs were still simply beautiful–"Mary" is an aching melody that has been stuck in my head for days at a time–but the lyrical content seemed less broad in intention or scope than it had on the first few albums.
Turning, then, to review Josh Haden's first proper solo album, a self-released affair called Devoted, one must ask: are the songs still slow? Is the country twang still there? Are any of them not love songs? In other words, what's new?
The answer: Josh Haden found Dan the Automator.
Yes, the songs are still slow love songs. Having set a landmark with his song "Spiritual" (and really, having a song from your first album covered by Johnny Cash has to count as a home run), Josh doesn't dwell overlong in that starkly religious land, though the closing "Salvation" returns to the territory in a pan-religious way. There is a powerful religious subtext, though, to almost every other song on the album, whether it's "only love will set you free" in "Discontent" or "take my hand and never go astray" in "Show Me the Way." This is perhaps to be expected given Josh's position on the purpose of music: "Why waste my time with music that doesn't help to bring me to a deeper understanding of life?"
And, again, thanks to Dan the Automator's beats and some quirky keyboards from John Medeski (of Medeski, Martin, and Wood), the sound is totally different from Spain, even with the continued presence of guitarist Merlo Podlewski: less bluesy, less organic, brighter, flatter, more trancelike in places (indeed, at times Josh's performance recalls another singer-songwriter who hooked up with a beat-focused producer, Beth Orton). Not all the experiments are successful. The upbeat "Drifting" is spoiled by an uncertain-pitched vocal and a beat that feels canned, and the harmonies on "Want You So Bad" are likewise wobbly. But balancing out these low points are some real gems: the apocalyptic imagery of "Hallelujah," the dark seduction of "Love You More," and even the Spain-manque of "Light of Day." In fact, some of the strongest moments on the disc are the ones that sound most like Josh's old band.
Which, I suppose, begs the ungenerous question: why change at all? But songs like "Show You the Way" and "Devoted" blend the plaintive songwriting of Haden's older canon with a fresher musical palette, and maybe that's the value of this recording: helping to distill the essence of Haden's songwriting in the absence of the sonic hallmarks of the old band.