Safe As Milk Reviews
For the few who have been privileged enough to stumble across his work with the 77's and on his own, Mike Roe has been an inspiring artist. Not in the usual "Contemporary Christian/Inspirational" sense, but inspiring because of the honesty and integrity of his music. The topics of his songs are not always pleasant, but they are usually thought-provoking, causing the listener to question his or her own actions and motives, seeking out what it true and what is hypocrisy.
Roe also possesses the ability to musically "borrow" from other artists with impunity, without sounding like he's ripping them off. He wanders from one style to another, trying this and testing that, and usually succeeding at making an indelible impression.
Safe as Milk, his most recent solo effort since the release of More Miserable Than You'll Ever Be several years ago, (Roe also has a talent for finding catchy album titles) continues the history of diverse musical styles, as this one is all over the map. From synthesized pop, Beach Boys-style harmonies and free-form jazz to straight-ahead gospel, and all the manner of styles in between, the album has a surprise on every track. If you are someone who likes a recording that is musically consistent from beginning to end, this isn't for you. However, if you have an appreciation for an artist who is willing to take chances, by all means, pick this one up. There are two versions of the album. The one most likely found in your local Christian bookstore has 9 cuts, while the other version that can be bought at a concert and probably will be available through mainstream sources, has 12 songs. The sequence of songs differs between the two. I first reviewed the "Christian" version.
The album starts off with the slower-paced "I Want Never Gets," a cautionary tale about love, with some good guitar work by Roe. It then slips into "Smiley-Smile," the "Beach Boys" tune that appeared as a snippet on the 77's Pray Naked disc. Pure sunshine pop, it's a sweet love song that leaves you humming the melody. It almost sounds like something Roe could have written to his daughter.
The record then turns to the bittersweet "Go With God, But Go," about a lapsed relationship. The music shifts more into the singer/songwriter vein, guitar-based and mid-tempo. It also serves as a showcase for Roe's guitar skills, which sometimes don't get the attention that they deserve. "You Leave Me Homeless" has a muted jazz musical background, with Roe's voice wandering throughout the arrangement. Probably the cut that is the least commercial, it gives him an opportunity to work in a genre that he has claimed as a favorite. "Till Jesu Comes" has what is probably the strongest vocal on the record, at least when it comes to impact. Intimate and passionate, it's one of my favorite cuts.
"Ache Beautiful" and "Holy Day" continue in more of the pop vein, and the album finishes out with two great songs, "Hold Dearly To Me" and "I Need God." "Hold Dearly To Me" could be a Dylan tune, and has great piano and sax work by Roger Smith and Mike Butera, respectively. Lyrically, Roe unabashedly reaches for the only thing that can satisfy us. "Let me sit at your Holy feet/Let me count the hard cost/Of what is right and what is wrong/Of who is king and who can only be the boss/Let me lie awake/And seek the truth from Thy holy face/Out of Thy holy mouth, thundering forth/Out of a holy place."
"I Need God" starts out with just Roe singing, backed by Smith on the piano. The song builds into an all-out gospel tune, complete with Hammond B-3 counterpointing the piano, and is a great finish.
The three songs that appear on the "other" version are a little more in the vein of stuff that Roe has done with the 77's. "It's For You" talks about our innate selfishness, and is a mid-temp pop/rock tune. "Sneakers" is a little harder and bluesier, while "The Stellazine Prophecy" has the somewhat ominous spoken-lyric approach that was on "Snake," from the 77's last album. It also would probably be distressful to people who tend to take all lyrics at face value, and don't delve into them. But then, Roe is used to controversy. One of the things he's always been best at is shaking people up.
There are studio out-takes sprinkled through out both versions, which kind of give you hints into Roe's personality. One of the things that I have always appreciated about him as an artist is his lack of pretense. There's no whitewashing here--what you hear is what he is.