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.

p>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.