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So Much for Substitutes

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 6 Jun
  • COMMENTS
So Much for Substitutes
Sounds like … very melodic pop/rock that combines elements of U2, Jars of Clay, dc Talk, Train, and ColdplayAt a Glance … whether or not you prefer this album to downhere's much acclaimed debut, So Much for Substitutes is still a great blend of smart Christian lyrics and catchy pop/rock

Not everyone is aware of it, but there's been tremendous buzz building around Canadian quartet downhere since the release of their self-titled debut two years ago. The quality of that album caught a lot of people by surprise, including us, and generated widespread acclaim. We named it the third best album of 2001 and included downhere in our list of best new artists that year. The disc ended up earning the band a number of other awards, including the Canadian Juno Award for "Best Gospel Album." I've personally introduced most of my friends to the music of downhere, and they became instant fans who then shared the music with their friends. No doubt this sort of grassroots buzz has helped downhere achieve the level of interest they now enjoy. It's fair to say that a lot of people were talking about downhere at GM Week 2003, especially after seeing their concert.

With great anticipation, audiences may now finally enjoy the sophomore release, So Much for Substitutes. As well received as the first album was, many considered it a pop album, including the band. That thinking is partly due to the exquisite, though polished production by Nathan Nockels (Watermark). The album wasn't overproduced, but it did make it hard for downhere to accurately recreate it in a live setting. So they ended up reinventing a lot of their songs for concerts, and it allowed audiences to see that downhere is indeed a rock band. One of the goals behind So Much for Substitutes then was to carry that four-piece rock-band sound into a recording, thereby bringing more consistency between their live act and their album. Enlisting the help of acclaimed producer Jimmie Lee Sloas (PFR, Switchfoot), it's pretty clear that they succeeded in their efforts. In fact, unlike the first album, which utilized session players outside of the band on several tracks, So Much for Substitutes is pretty much all played by downhere.

Now, here's where some difference in opinion comes into play. Half the people I've talked to who have heard both albums love the new sound. So Much for Substitutes does indeed sound more like the work of a rock band, and many are viewing this as artistic growth. The other half, including me, prefer the debut. There are some striking differences between the two discs, many of them affecting the things that made downhere's debut so special.

For starters, this band has two excellent lead vocalists: the powerhouse tenor of guitarist Marc Martel (who sounds similar and superior to Kevin Max) and the softer-edged baritone of guitarist/keyboardist Jason Germain. Whichever voice you prefer may affect which album you prefer: Jason was featured most on downhere's debut, and Marc dominates So Much for Substitutes. Also, the music is a little less eclectic and grandiose for the new album. Though not under-produced or lacking in variety or energy, the album is still less eclectic and varied than downhere's debut.

So Much for Substitutes is a fine effort, and to further nitpick between the two albums is pointless—like quibbling over an A+ and an A-. This is widely enjoyable and accessible melodic rock with smartly conceived Christian lyrics that break beyond the subculture. The easy favorite for most is the album's first track and single, "What It's Like," which considers how God can allow suffering in the world and trying to relate to humankind, only to conclude that he has indeed experienced pain with us through Jesus. It's a strong and infectious rocker, especially memorable because of its awesome '80s-styled chant in the breakdown after the bridge.

Much of the album's themes center on offering Christians a wake-up call, as epitomized in what will likely be the next single, "Comatose": "Are you comfortable being so comfortable?/You don't seem to mind at all." The softly anthemic "Walls" reminds us that no barrier around our heart or in our lives is too great for God to break through, and "Headed" explains that strife and persecution are both part of the job description of a Christian, especially one who is effectively sharing the gospel. Perhaps the most poetic and difficult to understand track on the album is the pleasant sounding "In America." It wasn't written to make a bold political statement about the United States, but rather to equate the perceived loneliness and selfishness of American excess with that of the Christian subculture—in that way, it is perhaps doubly bold in its message.

Another highlight is the joyous "Starspin," most memorable for the infectious melody and the thunderous rhythm section of drummer Jeremy Thiessen and bassist Glenn Lavender. Inspired by Psalm 19, it's a worship song from the perspective of creation encouraging us to praise the Lord. The rocking "Stone" declares that it's better to be a mere pebble in the kingdom of heaven than a shining star anywhere else. "Feels Like Winter" was inspired by the struggles of one of Marc's friends, smartly tackling the subject of depression despite the faith and hope we have in Christ: "And it feels like winter on a perfect summer day/If I convinced my heart to believe my mind, it might just go away." The rock ballad "Iliad" uses Homer's classic poem as a metaphor for our lifelong spiritual journey.

A sure sign that you're listening to a good album is when the hidden track is as good as everything else preceding it. "We Have Not Reached Home" is more like something you'd expect on a Jars of Clay disc, and not a throwaway track on a still relatively unknown band's sophomore effort. Not every track is gold (the funky "How They Love Each Other" sounds a bit similar to "Reconcile" from their last album), but there's nothing really worth critiquing here.

Combining elements of U2, Jars of Clay, dc Talk (without the hip-hop), Coldplay, and Train, downhere now exhibits a rich and simple melodic rock sound sure to be embraced by many. I'd still prefer that they regained some of the pop eclecticism of their first disc, but I'm also glad that this is a band ready and willing to try new things. It means we'll never know what to expect from these guys on future albums. Beyond catchy songs with memorable hooks, downhere excels at writing about the Christian faith with lyrics that are thoughtful and real, poetic and still transparently understood without resorting to banalities. An accessible rock album that challenges listeners to be more God focused by stepping outside of their comfort zones? Now that is something buzz-worthy indeed.