1. The 77’s – The 77’s
THE 77’s (1987)
Released within a few weeks of U2’s “The Joshua tree” on the exact same label, this album was supposed to make a rock stars out the band and make Christian Music’s finest rock band a household name. “The Joshua Tree” caught fire, became the biggest thing in the label’s history and The 77’s became cut out bin material in the mind of the label. Though nestled within the grooves of this masterpiece in the finest collection of rock songs Christian Music has ever produced. there is such diversity, creativity and originality that it stands beyond the test of time and continues to deliver the finest listening experience by a Christian band.
I have spent countless reviews discussing the fact that Michael Roe is one of the greatest treasures in Christian Music. There may be better songwriters (Terry Scott Taylor, Mark Heard) better guitarists (Phil Keaggy?) and better live performers (Bono?), but none that have the hat tricks of being amongst the very best in all categories. Roe would clearly rank amongst the best in every measurable category and on the self0titled third release it came together in abrilliant fashion.
the album also features what I believe is, by far, the finest line-up the band ever compiled. Their extensive live performances at the time allowed them to fine tune some amazing rock chops and work through the songs included on this project so that the album feels very live and frenetic while polished and perfect. Roe’s collection of songs here combines the finest in self-indulgent experimentation and finely and perfectly crafted pop tunes in a rock setting. There is literally not a single blemish and every song is brilliant unto itself, despite the variety and limitless risks taken on several cuts.
This combination of radio friendly pop rock, acoustic tinged Americana and experimental rock and blues is appealing to both critic and “fan” alike. That is a truly rare combination.
I have dealt in detail with the history of the band in other reviews and won’t do so here. This is all about the album. I am going to guess Roe will read the review (like he did of previous ones) and tell me I am wrong about several opinions expressed.
If any complaint can be made about the album it is that it is too short. Recorded at a time when vinyl and cassette were still the primary formats, the length of an album was always an issue. Later releases would offer songs left off this amazing project and would prove to be worthy of inclusions of their own.
The album starts with what should have been a number one rock radio hit, “Do It For Love.” This inspiring and inspired rock song contains the bands finest and most memorable hook to that point and would offset an album filled with regret, misery, loss and confusion. But what a brilliant way to kick of such an album, with a joyous song revealing in love and experience, both emotional and spiritual. The rollicking 60’s influence guitar sound would be repeated elsewhere on the project, but here it sounds so fresh and different, which set against the backdrop of the rest of the music scene at the time.
After such a joyous introduction, Roe’s reflections of love turn darker and more internal. “I Can’t get Over It” deals with the reality of how ones own selfish decision to not forgive leaves true love behind and replaces it with regret and bitterness. Roe’s self-realization is haunting as everyone has seen someone they love throw away something good even though they could have easily saved the situation by being honest and humble. This is a difficult emotion to overcome. Musically, it is still a very hook driven rock song, with some of Aaron Smith’s finest drum work; not for its complexity but rather for its sheer power and punch! Roe is never content to let a song rest on its own hook, but rather, he adds such passion and attitude into the performace that it breaks through where other songs would be soon forgotten.
The same aggressive rock riff follows with “What Was In That Letter.” Roe’s improved songwriting here allows for a double meaning to persists. Whether it is a real letter written from a lost love or convicting friend, or whether it is God’s letter the Bible, the song message rings true. Roes gruff vocals here stand out against a more rough edged guitar sound in the chorus. What really stands out though is the inclusion of an acoustic piano accompanying the riffing guitar. It gives the song a sound akin top The waterboys or even the Smiths, but with a decidedly heavier sound.
A long standing live favorite and utterly brilliant recording performance follows with “Pearls Before Swine.” Recorded with an “as live” soundtrack, this aggressively blues rock number shows Roe’s supremacy as songwriter and rock vocalist. But even more so it is here that the CCM world discovered that Michael roe is clearly one of the great rock guitarists that has ever graced it’s stage. The whiny and winding riffs just weave in and out and through the listener. the song starts heavy and somehow actually builds and builds. the crescendo is a pure rock orgasm. It is both painful and exhilarating. As Roe moans and then screams the words “veil of ashes” over and over the song just transcends anything CCM had ever witnessed with the band nearly out of control in some sort of progressive blues experiment. The band Veil of Ashes would take their name from this song.
After this the breathless listener is then jolted back to reality with a musical expression utterly and completely different. “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life” follows with what should have been the biggest hit in the bands history. The Byrds influence is unmistakable with the jangly guitar and lyrical scheme heavily influenced by the legendary band. It should be noted here that there has been some discussion about a potential Top Songs in CCM history blog. Since I would be crazy to attempt such a feat, I will let the cat out of the bag that this song would be my hands down number one. It is about a perfect rock song as has ever been written. the melody is timeless, the performance spot on, and without the aid of long guitar solos or crazy instrumentation, the band simply put together a brilliantly simple song that will remain a true classic.
Regret again takes center stage thematically with “Frames With a Photograph.” The mid-tempo rocker finds Roe in familiar territory and sounds a bit like a handful of songs from “All Fall Down.” The sense of longing Roe projects is so real and human that nearly all could relate to the message. Again here Roe makes the song more universal by allowing the listener to determine whether the one who can fill the frame is God or another person. This allows for a much more universal expression and a better song overall.
“Don’t Say Goodbye” is perfect Roe song. A cool little groove mixed a sultry vocal line that turns quickly rock and roll. Again we find Smith’s drum work driving the song onto a different level. Rather than dealing with guilt of loss Roe expresses the frustration of a loved one who selfishly leaves and has yet to find and greener grass despite the promise. Yet there is a longing from Roe for the person to stay. this conflict of frustration and love is again a more universal theme than most CCM bands would ever dare to address. Musically it is not too far removed from “Someone New” but with a much better guitar riff and solo.
A long time favorite has been the melodious “Bottom Line.” This is all about the groove. Sexy and soulful, the song just pulls the listener in. It is inescapable. The song also contains one of Roe’s finest lines with “Peace of heart is better than peace of mind.” the song never bursts into some sort of rock cliche, but stays true to itsel;f and delivers on content and performance.
The album closes with a stream of consciousness experiment acoustic folk rocker called “I Could laugh.” It is both utterly odd and utterly brilliant at the same time. many have struggled with the unconventional lyrics including lines about having a “rocket in my pocket” and “what will get me off” and the way the song just plods along with no hook and even a suitable conclusion. It just is. And it just is brilliant. But the way Roe infuses similar imagery and spins the songs into different directions by using juxtapositions and repeated themes in different settings makes it truly an original. One example of what I mean is Roe’s use of the word “right” in back to back lines. in one line it refers to the direction while it later refers to the privilege. he uses homonyms like missed and mist in back to back lines as well.
I used to believe the song did not require repeated listens. now I find myself waiting anxiously for the song to start. I grab something new from it during every listen. At nearly 8 minutes and no instrumental break it is a lyrical tour de force and yet there is not a single line worthy of dismissal.
And with this epic acoustic ballad or sorts the album comes to end.
And so does this blog…at least the countdown part.