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Intersection of Life and Faith

Wide-Eyed and Mystified

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2006 5 May
  • COMMENTS
Wide-Eyed and Mystified
Sounds like … the adult contemporary and melodic rock popularized by MercyMe, The Afters, and Sanctus Real, with elements of piano pop similar to The Swift, Ben Folds Five, and Michael W. SmithAt a glance … Wide-Eyed and Mystified draws upon all of Downhere's songwriting and performance strengths to yield a smartly crafted pop/rock effort that measures up to their previous work, and at times, surpasses itTrack Listing The More Surrender A Better Way Dying to Know You I Will Follow Your Voice Little Is Much Stir Forgive Yourself Unbelievable The Real Jesus Remember Me 1,000 Miles Apart I Miss You Here

Downhere first hit the scene in 2001 with one of the strongest debuts in recent memory, a rich blend of smartly crafted adult contemporary that straddled comfortably between pop and rock. Just two years later, the Canadian band scaled back their production in favor of a more aggressive rock sound on their equally impressive So Much for Substitutes. But as is all too common with great acts in Christian music, the record label dropped them shortly after.

The odd part is, Downhere earned considerable industry clout and developed a very passionate following among fans. They just never seemed to muster enough radio support and album sales to make them the success many expected them to be. And considering the popularity of MercyMe, The Afters, Casting Crowns, and Sanctus Real in recent years, you'd think the similar but even better sounding band would prevail.

Thankfully, Downhere persevered since 2003 and has been granted a second chance with the newly formed Centricity label, thus providing a third chance for others to discover what they've been missing these last five years. Wide-Eyed and Mystified makes a perfect reintroduction for audiences because it showcases all of the band's strengths. It's clear that the foursome has gone back to the drawing board and searched for ways to improve upon their sound—how to properly mix their passionate balladry with energetic rockers, how to effectively blend keyboard textures with the heavier electric guitars, and how to balance between two very effective lead vocalists without sounding like two completely different bands.

Ah yes, those vocalists. Guitarist Marc Martel is clearly the primary singer with an ultra-tenor that has often been compared to Kevin Max, though now I'm beginning to think it's up there with Freddie Mercury. If you have doubts about that, listen to the brief hidden track at album's end. The guy actually seems to have improved with time, showing more range and nuance while singing lead or harmony—his head voice on the Coldplay-styled communion anthem "Remember Me" makes Chris Martin's sound relatively thin. But there are also some songs (usually ballads) for which a warmer and more soft-spoken tone is better suited. That's where Jason Germain (guitar, keyboards) shines, and it's amazing that two voices that sound so different can compliment each other so well.

Despite the stronger rock feel of Substitutes, that album was a little too homogenous sounding overall and neglected the band's equally effective softer side heard on their first album. Wide-Eyed successfully captures both styles. Combining a pounding piano with thick guitars, "The More" recalls the same kind of insanely catchy ear candy that Squeeze made twenty years ago, set to insightful lyrics about our lifelong faith walk with God. The equally driving rock of "Stir" expresses the importance of community and diversity in Christianity, while "Surrender" delivers terrific power pop reminiscent of Ben Folds Five with a simple message of trusting in the Lord. Then there's "Little Is Much," a soaring anthem as accessible as Casting Crowns or MercyMe while powerfully expounding on a recurring theme from Jesus' teachings concerning faith.

Countering those tracks are beautiful ballads like "A Better Way," intended as the ultimate love song demonstrating Christ's sacrifice for us. Its huge pop sound avoids formulaic adult contemporary by allowing the band to infuse it with their distinctive musicianship—in a song like this, Glenn Lavender's bass and Jeremy Thiessen's drums are just as fundamental to the arrangement as everything else. Equally moving is "Unbelievable" as it shows God's love expressed through centuries of church hymns and tradition, and "1,000 Miles Apart" could well be Downhere's weightiest song yet, using acoustic Beatle-esque to address subtle racial divisions today.

Perhaps most significant is the way this band so effectively fuses ministry with artistry, capable of openly expressing their faith without resorting to the same tired turn of phrase that compromises to many Christian bands. You've surely heard songs about surrender and forgiveness in pursuing a personal relationship with God, but Downhere communicates in a way distinctive to their ideas. In this way, they come across as genuine and introspective as Sara Groves, Nichole Nordeman, and even the bold Derek Webb with a song like "The Real Jesus," challenging our modern day impressions of the Son of God.

It's hard to call this Downhere's best work simply because they've always been this good, so let's just say they've found "A Better Way" to diversify their sound while giving character to all their songs. The band hits their stride with Wide-Eyed and Mystified, foregoing subtlety and cliché to communicate their faith with openness and artistry.

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