- reviewed by Andy Argyrakis Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2001 1 Jan
In a music world cluttered with teen pop, worship non-stop, and contemporary Christian always at the top, it's beyond refreshing to see a group that breaks the over-processed cookie-cutter mold. downhere is a mostly acoustic alternative rock quartet blending elements of several influential bands while maintaining an original sound. The group hails from Canada, the home country of well-known pop/rock acts Bryan Adams and Barenaked Ladies, and was started by co-vocalists Jason Germain and Marc Martel in the late '90s. Germain doubles up on keyboard and guitar, while Martel serves as the lead guitarist. They, along with bassist Glenn Lavender and drummer Jeremy Thiessen, toured throughout 17 states, 6 Canadian provinces, and did some dates in Mexico, all without the help of a record deal. From there, they earned the titles of Festival Act of the Year and Outstanding Contemporary Christian Album of the Year at Canada's Prairie Music Awards. Obviously such notoriety caught the interest of major record labels, and the group eventually signed a split deal with Word in the Christian market and Epic in the mainstream market.
It's hard not to take a liking to just about every song on downhere's self-titled disc, starting with "Larger Than Life" (no, not a Backstreet Boys cover). The track has grassroots elements, such as the The Jayhawks-styled acoustic guitar opening, but it also has a rock edge due to Martel's Kevin Max-like vocals and the ripping electric guitar solo halfway through. The solo is unexpected, but doesn't overpower the rest of the band and is one of those riffs that truly gets stuck in your head. "Reconcile" maintains a flavorful edge, combining their rootsy rock sound with a slight Celtic flavor that recalls artists such as Del Amitri and Martin Page. I appreciate the fact that downhere maintains their acoustic/electric guitar balance while incorporating Celtic undertones instead of just randomly inserting or overusing such sounds. The group wants the track to be a ministry staple at their concerts in hopes it will remind people they can truly overcome the problems they've faced in the past. Since the sound is so clever, there's no doubt believers and non-believers will both feel comfortable relating to the message. Next comes "Raincoat," a song about God being our protector and provider. The harmonica interludes within the tune give the mid-tempoed acoustic backdrop a more creative zing, bringing to mind the southern-fried moments within Train's catalogue. Like Train, it's nice to see a rock band pay tribute to other genres and adapt them to their sound.
In terms of ballads, "Calmer of the Storm" and "So Blue" are just shy of majestic. Both have a dark feel, touching on the turmoil-filled topics in life. "Calmer of the Storm" features relatable lyrics that tell the story of someone going through a dark period — "When everything is wrong / When the day has passed and nothing's done / When the whole world seems against me / When I'm rolling in my bed / And there's storms in my head / I'm afraid of sinking in despair." The inclusion of a subtle string section during "So Blue" enhances the vocal passion and tear-jerking words about the sinful world in which we live. "A broken life/ Broken homes / Broken hearts and broken bones / Recycling the paper of a crying world's suicide note / And we're so blue." In both cases, the lyrics and instrumentation are perfect matches. So many ballads are just sung to audiences, but in the aforementioned cases, it's possible for listeners to feel the song in first person.
"Great Are You" includes similar string movements, as well as a bagpipe solo, which lends a somber tone throughout the first half. Such a tender arrangement doesn't match the joyful and triumphant lyrics of praise, including chants of the "Great Are You Lord" chorus. "All the Reasons Why" does a much better job of matching the mood of music with the lyrics, although it's much different in topic. The song's jangly, Caedmon's Call-styled beats supplement the story of downhere coming to America to pursue their recording contract. Although the group admits to the risk of leaving the world they knew for a new environment, they also communicate trust that following God's calling helps make their load lighter: "And why we sing cause you are bigger/ Than any reference we could make/ And we dance until we're tired/ Because you know your name is great."
downhere shouldn't have any problems making major waves in the states, and they've already re-grouped from the biggest setback of their career thus far. They were originally scheduled to tour with PFR and Britsh rock band steve, but the tour was cancelled when PFR's record label, Squint Entertainment, encoutered difficulty. Instead of lounging around, downhere has been booking solo gigs all across the country while their label sketches out the details of another prominent tour in the months to come. As their hidden track, "Rock Stars Need Money," encourages music lovers to support the band, I also would suggest the same when they come to a town near you. But even before that, make sure to grab a copy of their debut, destined to make the best-of-the-year list for many critics, including this one.