Boy, a couple of decades can fly by. I originally picked up Sticks and Stones upon its release in 1990, after a trusted musical friend insisted that the Seventy Sevens were the greatest unsung band on the planet. I subsequently spent so much time with the record that I was never aware it had been out of print during most of the intervening years. Thanks to Lo-Fidelity, you have your chance to become as obsessed with this virtual jukebox as I was.
Sticks and Stones was always a weird record on the whole. It followed the band’s big shot with their third, self-titled album on Island Records. In Seventy Sevens lore, that shot famously missed its mark despite a four-star introduction in the pages of Rolling Stone. It had been released concurrently by Island with U2’s The Joshua Tree in 1987, and we all know who got Island’s marketing attention that year. Three years later, a small label in Orange County collected scattered demos and lovingly shaped them into what is now arguably the Seventy Sevens’ best-known set.
The group’s first three records garnered comparisons to bands as broadly different as Echo and the Bunnymen and The Rolling Stones. That schizophrenic sense imbues Sticks and Stones. That may have hampered the band’s identity in terms of marketing, but it’s the same thing that made the group into the ideal one-band party to its fans. Tear the roof off with guitarist/frontman Michael Roe’s “Perfect Blues.” Groove to the icy, future-shock pulse of “MT.” Swoon to the melodramatic, lovelorn pop of Mark Tootle’s “Nowhere Else.” And I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the melancholy ache of “Don’t This Way.”
Four demos of tracks from the band’s Island record eventually sent me to music shops to get the band’s first three albums, but the Sticks and Stones versions are first rate. “Do it for Love” captures the anthemic spark of bands like the Alarm, with a rafter-raising sing-along chorus. The demo of the band’s jangling folk-tinged lament, “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes and the Pride of Life,” possibly outshines the official version, and features Byrds veteran Chris Hillman on mandolin and bass. Hillman certainly sounds at home – the song could have been a lost Byrds hit itself.
Roe has carried these songs through the years and different incarnations of the group, grousing more than once about the thin, brittle sound of the original CD release. Lo-Fidelity mastering engineer Kevin Fromer did yeoman’s work giving these songs new character and fuller form. This is not a transparent remastering job, with gentle EQ and heavy compression to raise the overall sonic level. You may as well consider the set remixed – and remixed well. The songs sparkle and chime when they’re supposed to, but they also growl and rumble when they need to dig deep. They didn’t before, in the early days of digital mastering.
Lo-Fidelity has also included a second disc of relevant live cuts and additional demos. Tootle’s “Problem Girl” is a diamond-in-the-rough, a sardonic shot that Roe pinpoints in the liner notes as a direct descendent of Aztec Camera and the Smiths. The tense but loping “Cross the City Sky” is along the lines of a more urbane “Tea in the Sahara” by the Police.
Newcomers are to be envied as they take the plunge. Immerse yourself in the newly improved Sticks and Stones experience. Let it introduce you to the deep catalog of great rock and roll by the ever-changing but enduring Seventy Sevens. For the old guard, there’s plenty to rediscover. Recommended.