Christianity is marked by its paradoxes. Christ taught that to gain one's life one must be willing to lose it; that those who humble themselves will be exalted; and that those who would be first must be last. For artists in the Christian music industry, a similar kind of paradox applies: Those who guard their security most closely are most at risk, while those who put themselves at risk (and in God's hands) are actually the most secure.

Few Christian groups risk much musically, and Caedmon's Call, the seven-member band from the Houston area with a generic acoustic-rock sound, have little reason to put their secure, if artistically undistinguished, careers on the line. With their self-titled national debut and 1998's "Forty Acres," Caedmon's Call has racked up sales of more than 500,000 and scored five No. 1 singles on the Christian-music record charts.

Nonetheless, on their new album, "Long Line of Leavers," the group makes a daring departure from their nearly omnipresent acoustic guitar. Marked by elements of exotic percussion, jazz-tinged texture, edgy instrumentation, and lyrical turns, the disc often grabs the listener's attention like a sharp slap. While showing they are willing to break down the walls that constrain them, Caedmon's doesn't create musical rubble. "Long Line of Leavers" feels like the work of musicians who are following their instincts, relying more on groove and feel than game plan and formula.

It's hard to say how Caedmon's Call fans will receive the band's apparent new dedication to artistic growth. At times, "Leavers" is so eclectic it seems to lack a continuous musical thread. But what "Long Line of Leavers" lacks in consistency, it makes up for in its courageous spirit and shining musical moments. Among the more striking cuts, "Piece of Glass" captures the angst of spiritual struggle by making brilliant use of a detuned, vibraphone-like effect, phase-tone electric guitar and undercurrents of distortion. Vocalist Danielle Young renders "Piece of Glass" with an understated strength worthy of Shawn Colvin. You can picture Young staring in the mirror as she sings: "I just can't tell if you're telling the truth or a lie/ On you I just can't rely/ After all, you're just a piece of glass."

Another exceptional tune, "Love Is Different," begins conventionally enough, with high-hat strokes and acoustic guitar, but gets a welcome kick in the chorus from banjo, a loping electric guitar line, and bottle-like percussion. The electric piano comes by way of new band member Josh Moore, a teenage keyboard prodigy whose appearance on "Long Line of Leavers" is one reason why the album rises to a higher musical plateau. On a cover of Franciscan monk John Michael Talbot's "Prepare Ye the Way," Moore anchors the tune's anthemic, call-to-worship tone with his supple, joyous piano lines. Underpinned by strings, acoustic guitar, and mountainous drumming, this track approximates what might happen if Bruce Hornsby and Springsteen, overcome by a hankering for some old-time religion, headed for the studio to jam.

The band takes a lyrical U-turn on the Britpopish "Mistake of my Life," a song that illustrates in a most unusual way the doubt that comes with romantic love: "I'm in love, I've never been so sure of anything/Then again, it could be a tumor in my brain." With its jaunty backbeat, electric-guitar spikes, and creamy background vocals, "Mistake of My Life" could pass for an outtake from the vault of '80s power-popmeisters Jellyfish. It bears the unmistakable stamp of producer Ed Cash (who brought a similarly deft touch to "Ten Thousand Days," the national debut by folk artist and Caedmon's Call protege Bebo Norman).

"What You Want" opens with a similarly startling volley of lyric: "You're softer than a cannon blast/But your effects much longer last/And I want you just like a hole in my head/But I need you like a meal and a bed." Vocalist Derek Webb, sounding like a smokier incarnation of John Waite, injects the tune with angular desperation and sadness, the cymbals and drums flailing behind him in the chorus like a gale-force wind.

Not every experiment on "Leavers" satisfies. Though it earns an "A" for effort, "Dance" comes across as just odd. Touching, rife with vivid reminiscences of a life well-lived, the song tells Webb's grandmother's story in first person, but letting Webb bring it to us in his scruffy male voice seems a strange move, especially when Caedmon's has a fine female singer in Young.

But the misstep doesn't take away from the free-wheeling romp "Long Line of Leavers" turns out to be. The title track puts us on notice that the album will be noted for its departures, and it ends, fittingly enough, with "Ballad of San Francisco," about getting lost on the way back to the tour bus, but taking some time to wander on the way. It's the perfect wrap-up to an album that celebrates the joy of trusting God and walking down a different path--even if it means getting lost for a while--to see what surprises it might bring.

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