Working on a Building
How the Seventy Sevens Got Their Groove Back

This is one of two columns I posted this week. The second, which you can reach through the archive, replaces last week’s half-hearted effort, although I’m going to leave that one up as a reminder to myself never to do anything like it again. The new column contains the real Second Quarter Report, ordered from 10 to 1 instead of in alphabetical order.

Apologies for last week, and I hope this makes up for it. And now, the Seventy Sevens:

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I am, right now, engaged in my first ever eBay auction.

I know it’s old-fashioned of me, but I’ve never been comfortable with eBay. When I buy something online, I like to know just how much it costs, and be certain that I’m going to get the item I want. Right now, I’m still hours away from closing this deal, and my bid is already up to about what I want to spend, and I know I’m going to have to take an hour out of my day and continuously check to see if I’ve been outbid. It’s nerve-wracking.

There are very few bands that would drive me to eBay to acquire their out-of-print work. The one that finally got me there was the Seventy Sevens. I’ve been eyeing their 123 boxset for years – it collects their first three albums, from the early ‘80s, including their extraordinary self-titled third record, and I’ve seen this box go for well more than a hundred dollars before. But I’ve come to the conclusion that these three albums will never be re-released, and I won’t get this box for less than $50, so this time, I’m willing to pay.

Who are the Seventy Sevens and why would I pay so much for their music? Would it be too much to say they’re one of the best rock bands in the world? I hope not.

I’ve been a Sevens fan for more than 15 years. They’ve been playing for more than 20, and in that time, they’ve amassed a consistently rewarding and unjustifiably ignored catalog of rock-pop-blues goodness. Most of that catalog is out of print and unavailable now – hence my eBay frustration – and it’s a damn shame that so few people will ever hear albums like Sticks and Stones and Pray Naked. Hell, their awesome live album Eighty-Eight has been released twice, and both pressings are out of print now.

You are lucky, though, because the Seventy Sevens have just released one of their finest efforts, called Holy Ghost Building. And you can buy that one right now. Let me tell you why you should.

I’ve said this before, but there are only a couple of guitar players that unfailingly move me. One of them is Mike Roe, the leader of the Seventy Sevens – I can listen to his work over and over, on endless repeat for days, and not be bored. The tone of Roe’s work shifts constantly, from the blues-rock of the Sevens to his folksier solo stuff, to his country-fied stints with the Lost Dogs, to the instrumental space-rock of his collaborations with bassist Mark Harmon. But at the center of all of that is his shimmering guitar work, sometimes clean, sometimes dirty, always amazing.

Roe’s been the one constant throughout the Sevens’ career. About 13 years ago, he pared the band down to a powerhouse trio, with Harmon on the bass and Bruce Spencer on drums, and from that point on, they’ve been a tightly focused unit. Roe kicks his heels up with the Lost Dogs, and shows off his gentle side on his solo work, but with the Sevens, he rocks, and rocks hard.

It’s been seven years since the band’s last full-length album, A Golden Field of Radioactive Crows, and in hindsight, that one wasn’t their best work. I liked it – it’s summery and bright and heavy, but it’s missing some essential element that would have tied it all together. It turns out, that element was a sense of history. The best Seventy Sevens material springs from a deeper well, one that taps into rivers of blues and gospel and bluegrass. Their best work has always nodded towards American spiritual music, and the further they get away from that – see “U R Trippin,” on Golden Field – the less successful they are.

Holy Ghost Building is the album on which the Sevens embrace that sense of history, that deep and tangled root system that feeds their souls. On the surface, it’s just a collection of covers, old gospel and bluegrass songs. But one listen through makes it clear – this is nothing less than a new identity for the Seventy Sevens, a set of new priorities played out before your ears. There is no Seventy Sevens studio album that captures the power of the band as well as this one does, nor one that brings to bear the band’s deep influences as well as this one.

It should have been a throwaway. Hell, it was designed as a throwaway, a three-day recording session to get the wheels spinning. But it turned out to be a great Seventy Sevens album. One of the best, in fact.

Full disclosure time – Lo-Fidelity Records paid me to write the press bio for this album, so even though it only hit the streets a week ago, I’ve been living with it for more than a month now. I agreed to the job because, hey, it’s work, but I loved doing it because this album is so good, and getting a perspective on its creation was fascinating.

Basically, Roe, Harmon and Spencer got together for three days in 2005, and jammed out 10 old tunes. They did it Elvis style – Roe would play the band his old recordings of these songs, and when they all agreed on one, they’d crank out their own arrangement in two or three takes. They then spent the next two years tweaking it, adding harmonies and production touches, so that the finished product is both raw and polished. They also wrote an original tune, “A Lifetime Without You,” to close the record, but they did that one live too – the music came spontaneously, and Roe improvised the lyrics.

It’s in circumstances like this that bands find out who they are. I don’t know if I’ve heard a purer Seventy Sevens song than their take on “I’ll Remember You, Love, In My Prayers.” The trio transforms the old bluegrass song, most famously performed by Alison Krauss and Union Station, into a blues-rock rave-up. It’s simple, it’s uncluttered, it’s perfect. And it rocks, a lot.

The Sevens find their groove early here. Things kick off with “I’m Working on a Building,” the old Bill Monroe track that lends the album its title, and while Harmon lays down this ever-shifting bed, Roe just goes to town over it, pealing off great little leads and shuffling rhythms. The band scores a home run with their take on Rev. Gary Davis’ “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” knocking the Hot Tuna version aside like a fly.

For a real taste of what this band can do, head to track five, a raw, blistering take on Fred MacDowell’s “You’re Gonna Be Sorry.” Roe whips out the slide, and injects the signature riff with such feeling, it’s palpable. The vibe on this song is awesome – it’s sloppy here and there, as Roe shifts from rhythm to lead, but it’s dusty and real and live, and will run you over like a steam train. This is the Seventy Sevens, sounding like they always should have.

The band gets more inventive as the record goes along. They turn Skip James’ spiritual blues “He’s a Mighty Good Leader” into a pretty acoustic waltz, and transform “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” into a dead-on Elvis Presley workout. And they storm their way through “I’m Gonna Run to the City of Refuge,” a Blind Willie Johnson song Roe and Harmon had previously covered on their Fun With Sound album.

Many of these songs are about getting yourself right with God, a common theme in Roe’s work, and on this album, you get to hear just how deep the roots of that theme run with him. As he said when I interviewed him, “I need to hear these songs as much as anybody,” and if the Seventy Sevens have been writing about redemption for 20 years, then the old masters they cover here have been writing about it for much, much longer. “Stranger, Won’t You Change Your Sinful Ways,” “What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul,” “Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime” – these are songs of conviction, of rebuilding one’s spiritual connection.

So it’s odd that the album ends with its one sad love song. After a very pretty vocal bridge, “A Lifetime Without You” spins a tale of painful loneliness, another common Seventy Sevens theme. It’s a reminder of what Mike Roe has been trying to tell us for years – even though God is good, life is hard. And yet, even though life is hard, God is good. It’s a beautiful dichotomy that runs through the band’s entire catalog.

Holy Ghost Building is a pleasant surprise. When Roe first announced this project, almost three years ago, I expected a stopgap, a way station between real Seventy Sevens projects. But this is the real deal, an album of great scope and history, one that finds the Sevens becoming who they are more than almost any other record they’ve done.

The last words on the album are “I think I’ll quit now and walk away,” and if this is the last Seventy Sevens album, it’s a great way to go out. But I hope it isn’t. I hope this is just the start of a rebirth for this band – they’ve toiled in obscurity for longer than is conscionable, and they deserve to be heard. Holy Ghost Building spins these old-time spirituals into gold, and flat-out rocks while doing it, defining the band’s sound and soul. This is the Seventy Sevens, in all their glory.

Holy Ghost Building is available now from Lo-Fidelity Records. While you’re there, pick up the live album Ninety-Nine. It’s awesome too. If you want to try before you buy, hit their Myspace page, and be sure to listen to “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” (I just noticed “Unbalanced” is there too, from their 1999 EP – hear that one!) And of course, log onto for all things Mike Roe.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to up my bid on eBay. I want that box set, dammit!

Next week, Beck and the Alarm.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Baffling and Beautiful
Sigur Ros, Fleet Foxes and the Real Second Quarter Report

So this is the column that should have appeared last week.

My apologies for the abortion I posted instead. All I can say in my own defense is that I had a long, difficult week. I’m leaving the first version up, just so I can remind myself not to do anything like that again. And also, because the tributes to George Carlin and Michael Turner were heartfelt, and I don’t plan on repeating them here.

What’s better about this version? Well, I actually reviewed the records I meant to talk about last week, for one thing. For another, I decided to man up and actually write a second quarter report – last week, I posted my current top 10 in alphabetical order, like a whiny bitch. “Oh, it’s so hard to pick a number one! Have pity on me! Waah!” Hell with that. You’ll find the real second quarter report at the bottom of this column.

Again, sorry for letting you down last week. I’ve posted two columns this week to make up for it – this one (kind of a “requel,” like the new Incredible Hulk movie) and my take on the new Seventy Sevens album. And I’ll be back on track from now on. Thanks.

* * * * *

Another week, another baffling album from a band I love.

I’m still wading my way through the new Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie records, trying to reconcile their new directions with my expectations. I don’t have time for another Chinese puzzle, thank you very much. So what am I to do with the new Sigur Ros album, which finds the iconic Icelandic band flinging themselves down a number of new sonic burrows?

See, here’s the thing. Like a lot of people, I thought I had Sigur Ros figured out. Their sound is almost entirely indescribable, which made them surprisingly easy to review – you just throw up your hands and say, “It’s beautiful, and you have to hear it for yourself.” Here’s a band who sings in a made-up language over ever-unfolding soundscapes that last for 10 minutes at a stretch, a band who delights in crafting some of the most alien tones you can imagine, and yet forms them into shimmering towers of beautiful oddness.

Indescribable, see? It’s beautiful, and you have to hear it for yourself.

But most of that review strategy pivots on the idea that we’ll never understand Sigur Ros. Or rather, that the members of Sigur Ros will never let us understand them. All well and good back when the band issued ( ), a 75-minute near-instrumental masterwork with no song titles and no liner notes. They were shrouded in mystery, wrapped up in their own enigma, and we’d never penetrate it.

And then came Heima, the band’s documentary film. This gorgeously shot movie follows Sigur Ros (and their traveling string quartet) as they embark on an acoustic tour of Iceland, playing back yards and small rooms, and stripping their music down to its basic essentials. It completely demystified the band – here we were, hanging out with Jonsi Birgisson, and watching him let loose with that high, strange voice, and suddenly Sigur Ros was just four people who make music. There was no enigma. And I think it was possible to tell, just from watching Heima, that we couldn’t go back from here.

Sigur Ros’ fifth album, and first post-Heima, is called Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust, which translates roughly to With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly. You can tell right away that something’s different this time. Previous Sigur Ros albums have been elaborately packaged, but this one arrives in a simple cardboard sleeve, with a photo cover depicting the four band members running naked across a road. If you’re expecting a more intimate, stripped-back Sigur Ros this time, go to the head of the class.

Med Sud is, without a doubt, the work of a demystified band. It is almost Sigur Ros’ version of a pop album, as many of the songs hover around the three- and four-minute mark. There are acoustic guitars galore, and a notable absence (with a couple of exceptions) of the band’s trademark endless crescendos. Jonsi still sings in that high-pitched tone, but he’s up front in the mix, clear and single-tracked, like a frontman instead of another instrument.

There is plenty of Sigur Ros-style stuff here, like the cyclical piano figure of “Med Sud I Eyrum.” But there’s plenty they’ve never tried before, too. The two epics are massive, but only at the end – they both start with extended vocal-and-keyboards sections, in which you can hear every inflection in the voice. “Arn Batur,” notable for packing in 90 musicians for its orchestral finale, is almost entirely naked for six of its nine minutes. And the back half of the album is made up of slow, sad pieces with as few instruments as possible backing them up.

The shift is remarkable. Rather than sounding otherworldly beautiful on this album, Sigur Ros now sounds merely worldly beautiful. There’s no denying the pop thrill of a song like opener “Gobbledigook,” with its stereo-panned acoustic guitars and flowing melody. There’s also no denying how spare and pretty an acoustic lament like “Illgresi” is, although with such a focus on Birgisson’s voice, I suddenly (and for the first time) find myself wondering what he’s singing about.

The final track clues me in – it’s the biggest surprise here, the first ever Sigur Ros song in English. It’s as if the last curtain finally comes up, and here is the band letting its American fans in completely. The result isn’t anything special, unfortunately – it’s called “All Alright,” which already commits a sin against the language, and its best verse goes something like this: “I’m sitting with you, sitting in silence, listening to bird-hymns, like home, singing in tune together, a psalm for no one…”

But there’s something oddly unnerving about listening to Sigur Ros perform in English. The song itself is a sparse piano ballad, the vocals wafting on top of plunked chords, so there’s no mistaking the lyrics for Icelandic. And I find I miss not knowing what Birgisson is thinking. I miss the idea that this is a band we’ll never fully understand. This new insight is fascinating, and the songs on this album are fragile and lovely, but the effect is almost a grounding of what was once a free flying soul.

That’s not to say this album is a dud. Far, far from it. In fact, it contains some of the most beautiful musical passages of the year so far, especially the breathtaking “Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur” and the stunning “Festival.” That’s the song with the classic Sigur Ros crescendo – it starts with nothing, and builds to a monolith. But when Sigur Ros wants to be sweet and uncomplicated, they do it very well – observe the string of songs leading up to “All Alright,” almost a suite of emptiness.

There’s nothing really wrong with Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust. In fact, there’s a lot very right with it. But it’s undoubtedly a turning point, the album on which the set dressing is folded up, the wooden chairs are trundled out and the folksy, fireside stage of this band’s career begins. It’s fascinating to hear them simply make pretty sounds, but on this album, they’ve given us sounds a hundred other bands are making. For the first time, Sigur Ros sounds like a band from Earth, speaking our language, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I can’t help thinking something’s been lost in translation.

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I listen to a lot of music, but you’d be surprised just how much of that music comes from artists I’ve liked for years. On my top 10 list right now, you’ll find Aimee Mann, Joe Jackson, Counting Crows and R.E.M., all acts I have loved for 10 years or more. Believe me, I’ve noticed this pattern myself, so this year I decided to do something about it.

I’ve been buying and trying more new bands in 2008 than I ever have. The secret, I found, is to get over the idea that I’m going to be into every single band in my collection for the rest of my life. If I buy a debut album and I don’t like it, there’s no shame in just not buying the second album. Not every band has to have a 30-year career, as much as I’d like that. Some may burn brightly for a moment, some may not at all. But it’s worth trying them out, and enjoying (or not) that one album while it’s here.

My fervent hope when I started this new philosophy was that I’d find something captivating, astounding, amazing – something that I may not have heard under normal circumstances. And now I have. The band is Fleet Foxes, and you’ll find their self-titled debut occupying the number one spot in the list below.

Who the hell are Fleet Foxes? The most obvious answer is they’re a five-piece band from Seattle, led by a songwriter named Robin Pecknold. They describe their music as “baroque harmonic pop jams,” which tells you absolutely nothing. The best I’ve been able to come up with is this: imagine Brian Wilson’s 18th Century English folk band. But even that doesn’t do it. Who the hell are Fleet Foxes? It’s a complicated question.

Here’s what I can tell you: every second of their self-titled album is beautiful. Their sound is based on centuries-old folk, but it includes elements of sun-splashed California pop, ‘70s acoustic rock, and the harmonies of bands like The Mamas and the Papas. Every song here could have been written in the 1700s, lyrics notwithstanding, but the sound draws in bits from the last four decades. Pecknold’s voice is clean and clear, strong and gentle, and when the rest of the band orbits him in harmony, the vocals lift this record off the ground.

Take any song. Let’s pick “Quiet Houses,” track four. Over a thumping drum beat, Pecknold and his band spin a web of clean guitars, then layer a five-part harmony vocal over the whole thing. Then they break it down halfway through into something that sounds like a demo from SMiLE. The entire lyrics for the song are as follows: “Lay me down, don’t give in, come to me, lay me down.” It sounds astonishingly simple, but the result is simply astonishing.

Brian Wilson himself could not have written a better melody than the one that graces “He Doesn’t Know Why,” a gem of a pop song with some glorious “ah-ah-ah” harmonies. “Heard Them Stirring” has a particularly baroque base, harpsichords and harmonies accented by tympanis. There are no lyrics to speak of, but the wordless vocals and dazzling guitar fill your ear to bursting. And I doubt I will hear a more beautiful song this year than “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” although “Your Protector” gives it a run for its money.

When you finish Fleet Foxes, you will want more, particularly because final track “Oliver James” ends abruptly. Fear not, because the band released an EP earlier this year called Sun Giant. Oddly, this little morsel was written and recorded after the album, so these are the five newest Fleet Foxes songs. It’s a good sign, then, that my favorites reside here: the ever-expanding “Drops in the River” and the singalong “Mykonos.” You can’t go wrong with either the album or the EP, and you really can’t go wrong with both.

Many musicians work overtime, trying every trick in the book to craft timeless music. The results are usually over-cooked and half-baked, sounding desperately of their time. But Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes have succeeded – their sound is almost out of time, respectful of a hundred traditions at once. It is older than the ages, it is newborn and blinking its eyes in the sun. Who the hell are Fleet Foxes? They are the discovery of the year, and they have made the best album of 2008 so far. And even if they never make another record, I will treasure this moment, this time.

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Here, now, is the real 2008 Second Quarter Report. It features the same 10 albums I posted last week, but this time there are little numbers next to each of them. These numbers represent my preferences right now, and may be different tomorrow or next week. I am, as I said before, still sorting through my impressions of Coldplay, Death Cab and Sigur Ros. As always, your mileage may vary, but here’s what the top 10 list would look like were I forced at gunpoint to post it right now:

10. Joe Jackson, Rain.
9. R.E.M., Accelerate.
8. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs.
7. Counting Crows, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings.
6. Sigur Ros, Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endlaust.
5. Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends.
4. Vampire Weekend.
3. The Feeling, Join With Us.
2. Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers.
1. Fleet Foxes.

Thank you for your kind attention. Please read my Seventy Sevens review, if you haven’t already. Next week, in addition to what I said at the end of the other 7/2/08 column, I may whip out a couple of Doctor Who reviews. (Snap! You thought I forgot, didn’t you?)

See you in line Tuesday morning.