Tom Tom Blues Reviews

CCM Magazine February 1996
Seventy Sevens
Tom Tom Blues

"Can a white man sing the blues" is the question that's been hypothesized since the days of Elvis Presley. In the case of Seventy Sevens leader Mike Roe, one thing's for certain-- he's had the blues for awhile now, and he's done a pretty fair job of singing them. From "Denomination Blues" on the band's 1982 debut to "Outskirts" on this latest project, Roe has been a faithful student of the genre, assimilating the traditions and adding modern rock to the mix.

Roe and long-time Sevens bassist Mark Harmon are joined this time out by former Vector drummer Bruce Spencer. The power trio leans into 10 dynamic tracks, stacking sophisticated vocal harmonies and intricate arrangements on its blues bedrock. It sometimes seemed on past albums as if Roe would insert a guitar solo simply because he needed to kill time between verses. On Tom Tom Blues, he is careful to submit everything to the service of the music and the lyric. There are a number of terrific solos, but each punctuates the song, rather than calling attention to itself.

Roe sings openly about pain and bitterness-witness songs like "Rocks in Your Head," "Don't Leave Me Long," "Honesty" and "Deliverance," the album-closing tale of a tormented soul. These cuts may be enough to help prod even the hardest-hearted person into repentance.
--Bruce A. Brown

John J Thompson

Many of you have already looked at the end of this review and have seen my name. So you're expecting me to write great stuff about The Seventy Sevens. Lots of you know they're my favorite band, and that I believe everyone else ought to admit they're the best and all that jazz. Well, it's true that I have a long history of loving this highly under-appreciated band, and I make no apologies about that. But for the sake of the cynics, I'll try not to gush.

The Seventy Sevens rock. That's about all there is to it. However one might describe the intricacies of the rarefied art of rock and roll, it ought to be clear to one and all that Mike Roe is possessed by it's spirit. The Sevens' music has ranged from rhythmic and sensitive pop love songs to flailing heavy metal pyschedelia, often within the same record. Tom Tom Blues is the latest in the continuing development of a band that, after 14 years at this, ought to be on the downswing by now. Problem is, they're not.

Although Aaron Smith, arguably the best drummer to be seated in the heavenlies on Judgment Day, is sadly no longer a Seven, his replacement, Bruce Spencer, is a fine drummist indeed. Although Spencer tends more toward the hard-rock idiom than toward some of the tricky tendencies in which Smith prevailed, it's impossible to compare the two because this material is so different. Spencer definitely keeps the backbone solid throughout Tom Tom Blues.

Back on the bass is the brilliance of Mark Harmon, who's as greasy- and fat-sounding as ever. Harmon and Spencer masterfully demonstrate what people mean when they refer to the bassist and drummer as a rhythm section. Then, of course, you have the leader of the circus. The man who's probably the most diversely talented guitarist on the alternative scene, and whose voice has evolved into a sort of rock and roll snake that slides around the songs in an occasionally eerie, but always satisfying way: The Inimitable Michael Roe.

Listen to "Outskirts" for a lesson in progressive musical virtuosity, then skip back to the previous song, "You Still Love Me," to fully understand this guy's range. "Outskirts" is possibly The Sevens' coolest new tangent since their infamous "Pray Naked." Roe sings a traditional blues melody/lyrical structure that reeks of The Stones, then he guides the band through a decidedly Santana-influenced bit of Latin alternative rock. This song belongs in the guitar lovers' hall of fame, kids. Immediately following is the Tommy James/Clapton-inflected "Flowers in the Sand." Hear Mike Roe's voice downshift into sensitive romantic mode as the band mellows into a neo-psychedelic love song. Spencer's deftness with a drumstick is nowhere more apparent than in this number. By the end of what might have been the A side in LP days, The Sevens have locked you in your seat and have held their music to your head like a gun. And unless you're offended by great music, you're just dying for the second half to get underway.

Side 2 opens with the most prominent use of the acoustic guitar by Mike Roe since the self-titled Island album of 1987. "Don't Leave Me Long" is a mid tempo shuffle replete with relentless solos right alongside the hookiest melody of the record. Then "Gravy Train" comes crashing through with the most hysterical and catchy sound of the disc. The guitar lick that dominates is somewhat reminiscent of the repetitive hook that made "What Was in That Letter" (1987) so hard to get out of our heads. The opening lines say it best: "Well I broke my back / in a chicken shack. Well I made a stack / With Pastor Black. I got the knack / for attractin' slack. You jumped my tracks / and stole a snack. Rode my gravy train." Roe does his best Jagger impersonation as he delivers these gems. At least we know he hasn't lost his sense of humor.

"Five in the Nave" is an acid jazz diversion that aptly demonstrates the band's ability to swing, if nothing else. Then "Earache" pounds away with relentless hard-rock abandon and Mike's spooky spoken-voice lyrics. Six minutes later you'll be beggin' for mercy, and it'll come in the form of "Deliverance." Here we have the most delicate moments outside Flowers ..., with an intensified chorus that provides enough crescendo to be dynamic without busting the vibe laid down in the verses.

Tom Tom Blues sounds like the most deliberate and well-thought-out record since the previously lauded The 77's on Island Records circa 1987. Each of their records has been strong, even excellent, but they've lacked the continuity of Tom Tom Blues. If you're a fan, you probably already have it. If you've not yet tasted of this band, there's no better place to start than Tom Tom Blues. Okay. So I gushed a bit. I can't help it. The Seventy Sevens just plain rock!

TLEM December 1995
Bob Melvin

Tom Tom Blues, the latest offering from Mike Roe and his merry band of misfits (better known as the 77's--or the Seventy Sevens for the numerically impaired) opens in typical Roe fashion with the track "Rocks In Your Head:"

Let me make no bones about it
You ain't jumpin' mine for free
You play dirty, fine
With your dirty little mind
But I got bigger plans for me

"Rocks" firmly implants itself in the canon of Roe/77's songs about lost love and dealings with wayward women (see "Something's Holding On" from All Fall Down, "Happy Roy" from Pray Naked, "Go With God But Go" from Safe As Milk, and the list goes on...). As Sevens albums go, Tom Tom Blues is decidedly--well--different. The record finds the band moving on from a major facelift: rhythm guitarist David Leonhardt has left, as well as MVP drummer Aaron (my buddies call me A-Train) Smith. So with a decision not to replace Leonhardt and the addition of Bruce Spencer behind the kit--who, incidentally, does a better job than I ever could have imagined--the Sevens are now a three-piece. Musically, the record is consistently edgier than anything Roe and company have ever done. Gone is the stylistic schizophrenia that defined and sometimes plagued other releases; this was especially evident in the nonetheless brilliant Drowning With Land In Sight, where more aggressive songs were interspersed with mellow alterna-pop and straight-up pop songs. Also gone is the alterna-pop sound, which had become a Sevens signature. The only track that comes close is the gorgeous ballad "Flowers In The Sand."

All of this is not to say that Tom Tom Blues is overly hard, though. The album takes a lot of risks, with bizarre sounds and styles, and a heavy dose of experimenting. A perfect example of this is "Earache," which gives Roe an outlet for his ever-present need to solo. He takes total control of the song, soloing the entire time (save for a brief bridge) over the solid foundation laid by Spencer and bassist Mark Harmon. The tune finds Roe in his best monster-movie voice, rambling about materialism, greed, and eternity ("If I lived dirty, why would I want to die clean...")--very intriguing stuff.

Songs like "Earache" and the almost jazz-fusionish "Outskirts," raise an interesting question: with the drastic lineup change, has Roe taken more control of the band, or has increased collaboration led to this strange new product? Regardless of the answer, Harmon has definitely been let loose. The long-time bass player absolutely shines on Tom Tom Blues, enough to take your attention from Roe for a while. That in itself is quite an accomplishment...

Other tracks worth checking out include the Zeppelin-esque swagger of "Honesty," which goes directly into the dark, brilliant "You Still Love Me." The low, swampy crawl of the song lends itself well to its bittersweet tale of love, longing, God, struggle, and healing. The effects-laden vocals and guitar add yet another dimension to an already spectacular musical experience.

Okay, here's the bottom line: through all the twists, turns, and musical back roads Tom Tom Blues takes, it gels better than any 77's album has in quite some time; yet the band still manages to put an indelible Sevens stamp on the music. This one is definitely a keeper.

Louisville Music News
a more focused Mike Roe
Tom Tom Blues (Brainstorm)
By Robert Gruber

Tom Tom Blues is the solid album we all knew the 77s could make. Equally adept at polished, Bryan Ferry-style pop and edgy blues-rock, Sevens frontman Mike Roe, over the past few albums, has tended to create uneven mixes of brilliant material--consider the Black Sabbath-meets-Morrisey sparks that failed to ignite on 1994's Drowning with Land in Sight. Perhaps cutting a solo album (1995's Safe As Milk) satisfied Roe's pop jones enough for him to focus on rock. The fiery inventiveness of a 77s live show has been channeled onto disc, and the results are amazing.

Longtime drummer Aaron Smith is gone (as is second guitarist David Leonhardt), replaced by Bruce Spencer. Powerful, yet tasteful, Spencer tailors his energies to each song without overplaying. Locking into the groove with bassist Mark Harmon, the bottom-end sound is vast and warm, an ocean for Mike Roe to either sail or surf, depending on the song. And for the first couple of songs, "Rocks In Your Head" and "Honesty," the feel is rockin'--it's a big sound for three guys (especially through headphones).

Pretty much all of these songs encapsulate the frustrations of romantic love. "Outskirts," an Allman Bros.-style blues workout, showcases Roe's talents as both guitarist and singer. "Earache" takes on a fusion vibe, not unlike Tony Williams' Lifetime, beneath Roe's deep-voiced ruminations about Cadillacs, insurance, and the fallen world. "Don't Leave Me Long" blends acoustic chordings with swooping lead runs, while Roe half-croons the verses. Cool wah-wah tones characterize "Deliverance," as Roe explores the topside of his vocal range to fine effect.

Although the overall production of Tom Tom Blues is smooth, there's enough buzzing amps, muttered asides and various noises to make it feel off-the-cuff. This is a good album from a great band that hopefully will one day rule the world as we know it.

The Register-Guard
The Seventy Sevens
"Tom Tom Blues"

The Seventy Sevens - the name's taken from Jesus' advice on how many times people should forgive in times of conflict - treads a path that will keep them out of sure popularity. They're too Christian for secular music, too secular for Christian, a combination that's led to the demise of some like Mister Mister and Mike and the Mechanics

. Now the only ones who know the Seventy Sevens are those who venture into the backwaters of contemporary Christian. But this is one great band. "Tom Tom Blues" starts out inauspiciously with a fairly weak track called "Rocks in Your Head." But from then on this album is sensational.

The Seventy Sevens are most comfortable with a hard-charging rock that ranges from a Grateful Dead sound with a bit more punch to something a bit to the mellower side of Led Zeppelin. They'll hammer a power chord at times, then let lead guitarist Mike Roe dance along musically with the light touch of a ballerina, with super drummer Bruce Spencer and bass player Mark Harmon.

Songs like "Honesty" or "Flower in the Sand" or "You Still Love Me" should be staples for nontraditional secular stations. And their song "Outskirts" is simply one of the best toe-tappers I've heard in years.

But what makes the Seventy Sevens even greater is their willingness to be daring. The Sevens are a little older than the standard CCM band, and they'll do some songs just because they want to do them that way. It's "popularity be damned, full speed ahead." The Sevens are comfortable doing something as hammy as "Five in the Nave," then following that closely with "Earache," which is Frank Zappa-esque with a Christian message. It's delivered in Zappa guttural speak by someone who never, never could accept Christ's sacrifice, ending with haunting words: "It all comes down to this: Why would I live dirty and want to die clean?" delivered over a backdrop of Zappa-like staccato drums and bass and guitars, often working at cross-purposes (no pun intended) and at times melding for just an instant. Then, as the song trails off there's a higher-pitched voice in scream-speak, sounding like a prisoner in a faraway cell block or a patient in a straitjacket being led away, saying: "Insatiable ... never satisfied ... I'm insatiable ... never satisfied." See, way too Christian for secular, too secular for Christian. And also way too good to be missed.