Cody Canada & The Departed – “This is Indian Land”

“Big risks payoff for Canada and Co. on unorthodox debut release”

by: Tango Sho’Nuff

In May of 2010, after a decade+ career, Red Dirt darlings Cross Canadian Ragweed decided to call it a day.  Since the split, each member has occupied their time rather constructively.  Cross now owns and operates the bar where Ragweed played their first gig, Ragsdale has split time between family life and playing with Stoney LaRue while Canada and bassist Jeremy Plato resurfaced in  2011 with a new lineup, a new name, and a rather unusual debut album.

Right out of the gate, when the new line-up was announced, a large number of Red Dirt fans and critics began describing The Departed as a “super-group” of sorts, while many disgruntled Ragweed fans simply looked at them as a “side project” until their beloved CCR made their return.  While not a side project, the “super-group” tag was justifiable.  Drummer David Bowen has played with countless Red Dirt acts (Stoney LaRue/Bleu Edmonson) and has a might impressive Jazz resume as well.  Keyboardist Steve Littleton (Medicine Show) brings depth and texture courtesy of his Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Clav and Hammond skills, and Texas native Seth James supplies bluesy licks, stellar tone, and a downright powerful voice.

Billed as an Oklahoma Tribute Album, “This is Indian Land” can essentially be described as a covers LP with a unique twist, the twist being that out of the album’s 15 songs, 13 of them you are damn near guaranteed to have never heard before.  With the exception of the Leon Russell classic “Home Sweet Oklahoma” and J.J.Cale’s “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma”, every other track here was written either solely or collaboratively by a laundry list of legendarily obscure Oklahoma songwriters.

Outside of the Oklahoma/Texas scene, names like Tom Skinner, Kevin Welch, and Randy Pease don’t ring very many bells, but in the minds of Canada and The Departed, as well as the collective opinion of die-hard Red Dirt fans, these are household names…THESE are their Springsteens and Dylans.  While being a commendable and heartfelt tip of the hat to their heroes and influences, the fact that this was going to be The Departed’s debut release made the idea seem like a gamble that could easily backfire…would anyone outside of the Red Dirt scene get it?

Being as I was one of the thousands of uninitiated, I was skeptical upon first listen, but about 15 minutes in… skepticism quickly turned to admiration.  The songs are fantastically diverse and brilliantly arranged and the band’s performance collectively and individually prove that the “super-group” tag  given by some was shockingly an understatement.  This is a band with serious firepower and an almost
telekinetic type of chemistry that proves most impressive for a group that has been together for barely over a year.  A handful of original compositions have been in The Departed’s live set for some time now and have convincingly assured audiences that despite Canada and Plato’s distinct styles (the core of Ragweed’s sound), this band is in a league of it’s own.

I don’t normally do a track by track review, but this is no normal release, as each of the 15 tracks are worth discussing…so here we go:

1 – FACE ON MARS (Randy Crouch) – Probably the oddest track of the bunch, with a loose arrangement underneath a heavily syncopated vocal line (oddly doubled by piano and bass) its a fun track full of twists and turns.  When the chorus finally hits,  the tempo and feel change dramatically and soon after you’re hit by a gloriously psychedelic middle section that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”.  Red Dirt?  Not quite, but it amply proves that The Departed will not bend to fit into any specific genre.  Instead, they throw caution to the wind and bend the genre to fit them.

2 – BALLAD OF ROSALIE (Randy Pease) – Great storytelling abounds on this cut.  A captivating tale of love found and love lost, not of a man and woman, but a man and his guitar.  Infectiously hooky and featuring some of Canada and Plato’s signature vocal harmonies, the guitar solo is one of many highlights from Seth James, whose thick and creamy tone would make Warren Haynes himself envious.  James’ blues-inflected phrases mixed with his penchant for smooth and warm fuzz tones prove to be the perfect compliment to Canada’s raw, intense style.

3 – TRUE LOVE NEVER DIES (Kevin Welch) – The first of 2 Kevin Welch songs, “True Love” sounds like the bastard child of Gov’t Mule and Funkadelic.  James lays down a gloriously funky riff as Littleton chimes in on a wah-wah soaked Clav for a seriously deep groove.  After another tasty solo from Seth, the extended outro proves to be another example of The Departed’s seemingly unclassifiable sound.

4 – HOME SWEET OKLAHOMA (Leon Russell) – OK, one of two tracks that should be more familiar to most, The Departed’s version stays true to the spirit of the original while sonically putting their own spin on it.  In the tradition of classic songs like Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and  “Highway 61”, songs that became more affiliated with artists who covered them than the original writer, I do believe that this track follows that tradition as well.  Canada mindfully lets the lyrics carry the song as The Departed add significant muscle and texture not found on Russell’s version.  In short, they owned this one.

5 – MAKE YOURSELF HOME (Brad James/Bob Childers) – A beautiful bluegrass-tinged track with great dobro playing courtesy of guest Geoff Queen.  This is country music at it’s finest with subtle instrumentation and stellar 3 part vocal harmonies.  A delightfully simple song delivered with conviction and class.  One of the standouts here for sure.

6 – LONG WAY TO NOWHERE (Mike Shannon) – Bassist Jeremy Plato delivers the lead vocal on this one flanked by Seth’s wife Jessica Murray on harmony vocals and Dave Abeyta from Reckless Kelly on lead guitar.  Very reminiscent of The Eagles, it’s a welcome throwback to the classic country-rock sound of the 70’s.  By this point in, what seems to be most impressive is how The Departed use their collective experience to always serve the song and not clutter the tracks with anything that doesn’t have to be there.  All killer and no filler.

7 – STARIN’ DOWN THE SUN (Bob Childers/John Cooper/Brad Piccolo) – Another standout that sets a relaxed yet powerful mood with its haunting lyrics.  Vibe-soaked guitars conjure images of Trower and Hendrix and are accented by more stellar piano work from Littleton.  The outro features some nice twin guitar work from Canada and James showing impressive restraint from two guys with chops to spare.  Not a note is wasted.

8 – ANY OTHER WAY (Steve Littleton/Brad James) – With it’s deep pocket and Honky Tonk Funk feel, this track is in the same vein as “True Love Never Dies” albeit this time with a heavy 70’s Allman Bros. feel.  Canada lays down a fine vocal here and is clearly able to handle stepping outside his voice’s usual comfort zone.   Another extended outro lets the boys stretch out with syncopated unison funk riffs while crisp slide fills weave in and out.

9 – KICKIN’ BACK IN AMSTERDAM (Kevin Welch) – Songwriter Kevin Welch duets with Canada on his laid back tale of cross country travel.  Another sparse, calm arrangement lets the lyrics and story shine and is a nice contrast to James’ raw raunchy  fuzz licks in the instrumental bridges.  Also worth noting is the production throughout Indian Land.  While sonically well done with an even feel throughout, theres a nice variety of tones, colors, and vibes throughout making for a very fun listen.

10 – WATER YOUR OWN YARD (Charkie Christian/Greg Jacobs/Tom Skinner) – This track merits repeat listens and proves to be one of the strongest cuts on all levels.  Canada gives another stand out vocal (with buddy Stoney LaRue adding harmonies) and the effect on his voice making it sound like an old transistor radio broadcast is just too cool.   A perfect arrangement with all kinds of ear candy glazed over top.  Wah Wah guitar, organ fills, jazzy chord stabs, faint percussion ALL enhance the story of the song while never treading on the relaxed quiet dynamic the song calls for.  Impressive.

11 – YEARS IN THE MAKING (Mark Ambler/Bob Childers/Benny Craig/Scott Evans/Tom Skinner) – The dark and ominous vibe set by the lyrics is perfectly complimented with a sound drenched in textures one could only find on classic 70’s rock LP’s of days past.  James turns in what I believe to be the finest guitar lead on the disc and again the song’s arrangement is top notch.

12 – IF YOU’RE EVER IN OKLAHOMA (J.J Cale) – Cale’s cautionary tale for OK visitors is kept fairly straight forward with another nice streamlined approach.   Listening to James and Littleton trade solos on this one is a delight.

13 – A LITTLE RAIN WILL DO (Gregory Jacobs) – Simplicity is used to full effect here with Canada giving yet another standout vocal, here accompanied only by acoustic guitar and a low bell-like tone in the distance.  It’s as naked a performance as you can get, a man, his guitar, and the natural reverb of the room it was recorded in.  Inspiring.

14 – SKYLINE RADIO (Tom Skinner) – Quite possibly my favorite track on disc.   This track harkens back to the glory days of Ragweed and if cut earlier could very well have been their biggest single to date.  Infectiously hooky and filled with Cody’s trademark guitar style, this one has single written all over it.  The lyrics are positively outstanding and Canada delivers them as only he could.

15 – HOLD ON CHRISTIAN (Scott Evans) – Clocking in right at 8 1/2 minutes, the album’s closer is the perfect way to end this record.  For the life of me I can’t think of another song I’ve ever heard that even remotely resembles the sound on this track.  The guitar work here is outstanding and the feedback that swells in and out throughout the song as well as the free-form approach of the guitar arrangement is something that if carried over to The Departed’s eventual release of original material, makes this writer more than anxious to see and hear what The Departed have in store next.

“This is Indian Land” proves the value and quality of it’s songs far exceed the confines of Oklahoma soil and serves to be an outstanding introduction to The Departed’s unique sound while shining a previously unseen light on some very talented Okie songwriters.  The Departed prove here and throughout the entire disc that they have a unique mastery of musical dynamics rarely seen in this day and age.  And when coupled with the caliber of songs chosen here, the results are spectacular.  Whatever hype surrounded the band before this album’s release has now been magnified exponentially as fans (this one in particular) wait with anticipation to see, hear, and experience an album of all original material.  Until that day comes, “This is Indian Land” is a more than worthy listen and serves as a fine tribute to some unheralded greats while introducing an exceptionally talented band with a refreshingly unique sound.  Job well done.

9/10 Stars