“Drowning With Land In Sight” by The 77s emerges from the depths of the soul

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"Drowning With Land In Sight" by The 77s emerges from the depths of the soul

As men­tioned before in this space, many vet­eran Chris­t­ian rock­ers have suc­cess­fully turned to crowd­sourc­ing as a means to both finance rere­leas­ing cher­ished cat­a­log albums and fund new projects. The 77s are cur­rently work­ing the for­mer, with an unearthing (or res­cu­ing from under­wa­ter, if you pre­fer) of their 1994 release Drown­ing With Land In Sight the pur­sued prize.

Drown­ing With Land In Sight was the 77s sixth album and their sec­ond major label release, albeit of a far dif­fer­ent nature than the first which was put out in 1987 by Island Records only to be over­whelm­ingly ignored by same, it appar­ently too busy count­ing money from the lat­est U2 project to notice it had a ter­rific record by some­one else on its hands. This time, the band was label­mates with Amy Grant and looked poised to claim their right­ful place along Petra et al among Chris­t­ian rock roy­alty. Which unlike reg­u­lar rock roy­alty trans­lated into actu­ally being able to pay the rent on time each month as opposed to mak­ing sure the accoun­tants prop­erly cut a check for the new Lear next month. But I digress.

There was one minor prob­lem with this approach. The 77s had always been Chris­t­ian rock for peo­ple who hate Chris­t­ian rock; never inten­tion­ally antag­o­niz­ing their prospec­tive core audi­ence but also never com­fort­ably nest­ing along­side the afore­men­tioned Petra and vari­a­tions thereof as ready­made youth group fod­der. The lyrics were too intro­spec­tive, the accom­pa­ny­ing music too chal­leng­ing as it var­ied from shim­mer­ing, con­tem­pla­tive power pop minus the genre’s usual relent­less cheer­ful­ness to heavy blues. The band’s pop side had been preva­lent on its pre­vi­ous release. Now it was time for the blues. And oh, did they deliver.

In the film Rat­tle and Hum, Bono com­mented, “Char­lie Man­son stole this song from The Bea­t­les. We’re steal­ing it back” as U2 ripped into a cover of “Hel­ter Skel­ter.” With­out sim­i­lar fan­fare, The 77s did the same open­ing Drown­ing With Land In Sight by tak­ing Led Zeppelin’s arrange­ment of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and reunit­ing it with song author Blind Willie Johnson’s orig­i­nal lyrics, or at least a far more closely aligned set of words than what Robert Plant intoned. Mak­ing this a full throt­tle tri­umph, band lead singer/​lead guitarist/​main song­writer Mike Roe show­cased how he was and is one of the very, very, very few gui­tarists on the planet capa­ble of tack­ling a tune touched by Jimmy Page and not sound­ing ane­mic by comparison.

Roe and com­pany were just get­ting warmed up. The album bris­tles with snarling jagged force. At the time it was being recorded, Roe was watch­ing his mar­riage crum­ble while band­mate David Leon­hardt was fin­ish­ing a bat­tle with can­cer. This left lit­tle room for niceties or pious plat­i­tudes. Instead, Roe took what would have been the title track from his pre­vi­ous album had the dis­trib­u­tor not nixed it, namely “Pray Naked,” and used its phi­los­o­phy as a bea­con, strip­ping bare his raw emo­tions and dis­play­ing them for all to see. Lyri­cally the theme isn’t cen­tered on for­mer part­ner bash­ing; reflec­tions on one’s own short­com­ings are woven through­out decried loss. The band occa­sion­ally dipped into its pop side for this, but for the album’s major­ity kept the sledge­ham­mer cranked to 11. Only the last three songs fea­tured The 77s’ softer side, with the final song “For Cry­ing Out Loud” offer­ing the hope most every­thing before it found lacking.

It’s lit­tle won­der Drown­ing With Land In Sight fared poorly in the Chris­t­ian mar­ket­place. Said col­lec­tion of Chris­t­ian book­stores and churches pur­chas­ing music from them was, if oft­times grudg­ingly, accep­tant of end­less vari­a­tions on “Praise Ye The Lord” by Petra. It had no idea what­so­ever what to do with a pri­mal scream. But for those who know pain, the album was and remains a hid­ing place for shared sor­row. Drown­ing With Land In Sight is a superb musi­cal dark star, steeped in the blues and made for those walk­ing in the val­ley of the shadow.

As mentioned before in this space, many veteran Christian rockers have successfully turned to crowdsourcing as a means to both finance rereleasing cherished catalog albums and fund new projects. The 77s are currently working the former, with an unearthing (or rescuing from underwater, if you prefer) of their 1994 release Drowning With Land In Sight the pursued prize.

Drowning With Land In Sight was the 77s sixth album and their second major label release, albeit of a far different nature than the first which was put out in 1987 by Island Records only to be overwhelmingly ignored by same, it apparently too busy counting money from the latest U2 project to notice it had a terrific record by someone else on its hands. This time, the band was labelmates with Amy Grant and looked poised to claim their rightful place along Petra et al among Christian rock royalty. Which unlike regular rock royalty translated into actually being able to pay the rent on time each month as opposed to making sure the accountants properly cut a check for the new Lear next month. But I digress.

There was one minor problem with this approach. The 77s had always been Christian rock for people who hate Christian rock; never intentionally antagonizing their prospective core audience but also never comfortably nesting alongside the aforementioned Petra and variations thereof as readymade youth group fodder. The lyrics were too introspective, the accompanying music too challenging as it varied from shimmering, contemplative power pop minus the genre’s usual relentless cheerfulness to heavy blues. The band’s pop side had been prevalent on its previous release. Now it was time for the blues. And oh, did they deliver.

In the film Rattle and Hum, Bono commented, “Charlie Manson stole this song from The Beatles. We’re stealing it back” as U2 ripped into a cover of “Helter Skelter.” Without similar fanfare, The 77s did the same opening Drowning With Land In Sight by taking Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and reuniting it with song author Blind Willie Johnson’s original lyrics, or at least a far more closely aligned set of words than what Robert Plant intoned. Making this a full throttle triumph, band lead singer/lead guitarist/main songwriter Mike Roe showcased how he was and is one of the very, very, very few guitarists on the planet capable of tackling a tune touched by Jimmy Page and not sounding anemic by comparison.

Roe and company were just getting warmed up. The album bristles with snarling jagged force. At the time it was being recorded, Roe was watching his marriage crumble while bandmate David Leonhardt was finishing a battle with cancer. This left little room for niceties or pious platitudes. Instead, Roe took what would have been the title track from his previous album had the distributor not nixed it, namely “Pray Naked,” and used its philosophy as a beacon, stripping bare his raw emotions and displaying them for all to see. Lyrically the theme isn’t centered on former partner bashing; reflections on one’s own shortcomings are woven throughout decried loss. The band occasionally dipped into its pop side for this, but for the album’s majority kept the sledgehammer cranked to 11. Only the last three songs featured The 77s’ softer side, with the final song “For Crying Out Loud” offering the hope most everything before it found lacking.

It’s little wonder Drowning With Land In Sight fared poorly in the Christian marketplace. Said collection of Christian bookstores and churches purchasing music from them was, if ofttimes grudgingly, acceptant of endless variations on “Praise Ye The Lord” by Petra. It had no idea whatsoever what to do with a primal scream. But for those who know pain, the album was and remains a hiding place for shared sorrow. Drowning With Land In Sight is a superb musical dark star, steeped in the blues and made for those walking in the valley of the shadow.