A few months ago, I was gazing out my second-story window as three big men took down a rotten tree in my yard. I did everything I could to turn that into some sort of thematic statement, but I couldn’t get it to work for me. Sometimes, metaphors are tricky little buggers.
And sometimes, they just write themselves.
Just to drive the point home. It’s called the Liberty Tree. And it was taken down for public safety reasons. Wow. It’s modern America in symbolic miniature.
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My original plan for this week was to write a lengthy column catching up on worthy records I just didn’t get to over the past few months. There are quite a few, including missives from Green Day, A Perfect Circle, King’s X, Neal Morse and John Lennon. But then I took a look at January’s barren desert of no new music, and decided to hold on to these reviews, lest I have nothing to talk about until Valentine’s Day.
So I picked one for this week, and it wasn’t hard to choose.
Mike Roe is an absolute renaissance man. He has tried his hand at a dozen different styles, and pulled off each one wonderfully. But that unpredictability has sometimes been a drawback for Roe, since newbies don’t know where to start sampling his massive catalog. The novice who sees an acoustic concert and then picks up Orbis or A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows might not come back for more. Roe skips around, musically speaking, and he doesn’t often leave a road map for curious potential fans to follow.
Lately, though, he’s been neatly dividing his interests into four boxes, each with different names, and while I object to categorization from a purely artistic standpoint, the separation does help with suggesting entry points. With the Lost Dogs, Roe is an Elvis-loving country crooner with strong gospel roots, and you can hear that on every Dogs album since their 1992 debut Scenic Routes. With the 77s, Roe is a full-on blues-inspired rock machine, best evidenced by Tom Tom Blues and Golden Field. On his own, Roe is an acoustic folkie with a knack for self-deprecation and spiritual uplift, as heard on Say Your Prayers and It’s For You.
And when he teams with 77s bassist Mark Harmon, the duo turns out experimental, groovy electronic jam music. This side has showcased Roe the guitarist better than any other lately, with dynamic instrumental records like Orbis. Harmon seems to bring out the ambitious side of Roe, and their projects together have been layered, knotty and demanding, but very worth the time. Orbis especially is a little off-putting at first, opening with a 10-minute sound-effects-laden free-for-all and continuing wordlessly for 78 minutes.
One would be forgiven for expecting the same from an album called Fun With Sound, but one would be wrong. Roe and Harmon’s new record, released under the resurrected Seven and Seven Is moniker, is a full-on vocals-and-guitars collection of glorious pop songs, reminiscent of Roe’s The Boat Ashore. It’s a lovely piece of work, subtle and enveloping, and it continues the amazing streak Roe has been on these past few years, in all of his incarnations.
Fun With Sound is so titled because Roe and Harmon have knocked themselves out on the production front here. The drums are all programmed and sampled, keyboard effects weave in and out, and Roe’s guitar takes on personality after personality. If you’ve heard Orbis, imagine taking the more melodic sections of that piece and writing songs around that sonic template. The grooves are sweet, the melodies sweeter, and the blankets of overdubbed guitar are sweetest of all.
Opener “Gone in a Moment” sets the mood for the record, then bursts out of it with a perfect bridge. Listen to Roe and Harmon playing around each other on the beautiful extended ambient coda, and then dig the intro to “A Quiet Little Place,” on which Harmon takes the lead with his fretless bass. These two have been playing together for more than a decade, long enough to continually push each other to new heights. They harmonize delightfully on the tricky “My World Inside,” and practically duel on the fiery “L’Orbis/Jack Spoiler.”
Lyrically, this album treads familiar ground for Roe – broken hearts and downtrodden souls. He gets positively optimistic on “Ride the Waves,” but takes the emotional current of “Say So Long to Your Sad Old Love Song” as far as it will carry him. And in “Guadalupe” he pens a lovely tribute to Gene Eugene, the former Lost Dog and Adam Again mastermind who passed away in 2000. (Guadalupe was the rumored title of the sixth Adam Again album, which Eugene never got to make.) He ends with a nod to his gospel roots on “I Will Run to the City of Refuge,” with a Zeppelin twist. It’s the heaviest thing here, and makes for an explosive conclusion.
I’ve often said that there are only a few guitarists I will never tire of listening to, and Mike Roe is one of them. His six-string is everywhere on Fun With Sound, adding flourishes and weaving webs. And when he solos, as on “Thank You For Your Dreams,” it’s a wonder to behold. I will never figure out why guitar magazines aren’t falling all over this guy – he’s an obvious master with a lyrical tone and a deeply emotional playing style. Roe should have disciples who transcribe his every lick and try to play them with as much heart as he does. Just listen to the lengthy, lovely ending of “Sad Old Love Song” if you don’t believe me.
It wouldn’t be stretching too far to consider Fun With Sound the best thing Roe has done in years, even considering the steep competition. This is a record that spotlights just about everything he does well – the guitar playing of Daydream, the songwriting of the 77s’ Direct, the perfect production of Orbis, the lyrics and sweet, sweet vocals of Say Your Prayers. This is not an experimental toss-off, it’s the real deal. If you’ve never sampled Roe’s work before, this is a great place to start.
It’s beyond me why you can’t walk into any record store and buy this, but you can’t – like most of Roe’s work, it’s only available at 77s.com and related websites. You can listen to clips from every song there as well. While you’re there, pick up Direct, Golden Field, Prayers, It’s For You… hell, everything. It’s all good.
Next week, the Top 10 List, and likely a lengthy justification of my choice for number one.
See you in line Tuesday morning.