I swear to God, I spoke those words, aloud, multiple times during my initial listen to Michael Roe’s history of Southern gospel music, We All Gonna Face the Rising Sun. Perhaps it speaks to the paucity of my vocabulary or the degradation of my spirit that, when awed, I am reduced to cursing. Or maybe it’s evidence that this album demands a strong reaction. After all, some listeners may recoil at Roe’s appropriation of material so particular to another time, another place and another culture. Others may balk at Roe’s absolute sincerity, of which he said, “These songs make me tremble in my boots, I cannot sing these and not feel it every time I sing them. I picked songs I need to hear.”
Even most die-hard music obsessive will be unaware of Californian singer/guitarist Mike Roe’s almost thirty-year carer. Roe only bobbed above the surface of the mainstream when his eighties roots-rock band (sort of a heavier R.E.M.) the 77’s released a brilliant album on Island Records, the same week as U2’s The Joshua Tree, utterly consumed that label’s resources. Since then, Roe's soldiered on with the 77’s as well as adding his voice to alt-country collective the Lost Dogs.
For this album, Roe is on his own. He sang all the vocals, played almost every instrument (including the banjo which he’d never played on record before) and produced it all in his own home. What he has produced here is a virtuoso one-man show. While Roe is a very fine musician, it is his voice - a supple instrument, alternately sweet and stinging - that dominates these proceedings. Listening to him jump from a high lonesome country twang on "You Can't Go Halfway" to a deep bluesy growl on "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down" (covered years ago by Uncle Tupelo) is damn exhilarating.
The eleven songs Roe sings on Face the Rising Sun could well act as an introduction to Goodbye Babylon, a six CD box-set of (mostly) pre-war Southern gospel, despite only a two song overlap. That prodigious collection was so revelatory that Bob Dylan was moved to buy a copy for a grateful Neil Young, who called it, "The original wealth of our recorded music." Like the Oh Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack (whose newly-recorded material included "Man of Constant Sorrow", a song Dylan had recorded on his debut album), Goodbye Babylon juxtaposed songs from all different Southern cultural traditions, illustrating just how deeply they had intermingled.
With the period songs he tracked down, Roe weaves together multiple musical idioms, ones once labeled "race records" or "hillbilly", just as Bob Dylan did on his first album back in 1962. However, on this album, Roe wears even more masks than the young Dylan, who never multi-tracked himself into a full-blown gospel quartet as Roe does on the title track!
Every guise is not equally successful. However, while the album may have befitted from the guiding hand of a strong producer like T-Bone Burnett (an old Dylan sideman who produced Oh Brother as well as Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant) or even Rick Rubin (who kept Johnny Cash taking chances till the end, which even the Gaslight Anthem noticed) Roe's achievement remains stunning.
On the 77’s 1982 debut album Roe sang Washington Phillips’ (via Ry Cooder) “Denomination Blues” and here he interprets Phillips’, “Paul and Silas in Jail”. Back in ’82 he nailed “Denomination Blues” but in a most literal way, as a young seminarian might rigidly interpret a single bible verse. In “Paul and Silas in Jail”, as on the whole album, you can hear Roe wrestling with the poverty, suffering and degradation intrinsic to these indomitable songs. But this album is no glum recreation, in fact the most awe-inducing thing is how Roe took a rock n' roll cliche (the "back to my roots" album, of which the blues-based album in the most trite) and instead of making a self-indulgent vanity project or a studied exercise in history, he's made a joyful fucking noise.
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(This an updated version of a review published in the Manitoban, the University of Manitoba's student paper.)