If you’ve ever traveled I-40 through Amarillo, you’ve no doubt seen a true example of classic “Americana:” the Big Texan Steakhouse with its giant billboard challenge – if you can eat the entire 72 oz T-bone steak, it’s free. Next to the fabled Cadillac Ranch, it’s Amarillo’s most famous landmark.
I’ve known a few people who’ve tried; but no one who ever walked out without having to pay.
77 el Deora’s bass player, Keith Bahjat, says that he has. That seems to me to be a perfect little factoid for a band that calls their style “Oblique Americana.”
Their debut CD, “Sirens,” is as impressively authentic sounding as the band’s image is ambitiously hip. Think of all those great crossover country songs that made it to the pop music top 40 charts in the sixties and seventies, throw in a keen visual artistic sense, and front the whole thing with a very talented male-female duet and you’ve got some idea of what these guys have going on.
Right out there is singer Jenn Courtney. She’s got this incredibly soulful and expressive voice that really grabs you with its depth and range. She’s good.
Then there’s singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Maurice Tani. His voice recalls Ray Price by way of Buck Owens. He’s good too.
They’ve got that pop art thing as well. Poke around their website, you’ll find an archive of their show announcement posters, with ultra cool pulp fiction graphics. They’re heavy on the girls with guns theme and they’re all accompanied by little story snippets with lots of vague intrigue. It’s a great way to waste some time on the internet.
And if you think these guys are all style and no substance, then stick just “Sirens” in the player.
Tani has some great country guitar chops and a dead-on sense for country songwriting. His writing reminds me a little of Dwight Yoakam, with a keen sense for what works within the constraints of country music. His songs are rooted in classic country and frequently show a sense of humor that keeps them entertaining without becoming mere novelty. And he’s been around, paying his dues playing every kind of music in clubs and bars in Texas and the San Francisco area since the nineteen seventies.
Tani says that writing for a female perspective is an interesting challenge in that women can get away with lyrics that a man can’t. He’s found a perfect vehicle for that challenge in Jenn Courtney. Tani hooked up with Courtney in a Bay-area band called The Hillside Wranglers. Time will tell, but at first listen it sounds like a match made in alt country heaven. Wherever that is.
77 el Deora also features Bahjat on upright bass, drummer Christopher Fisher, Tani’s former bandmate from Calamity and Main and mandolin/ fiddle player Steve Kallai. Kallai’s fiddle seems to really drive the sound behind the vocals.
There’s so much great material on “Sirens,” it’s hard to point to a single, or even a couple, highlights. There are 17 tracks and, well, they’re good.
They do a Bakersfield thing ("My Old Address Book") and Tani channels Buck. Courtney does a blustery swagger ("Ain’t I a Handsome Fool") and then belts out a plaintive, sentimental ballad ("Is This Gonna Hurt") that rivals K. D. Lang at her torch ballad best. Tani croons a Roy Orbison cover ("Crying") and Courtney kicks out a honky-tonk stomp ("3:30 In The Afternoon"). They both harmonize beautifully on a folksy down-home gospel song ("Fire On the Mountain").
If you haven’t already, you can hear “Sirens” in steady rotation on Boot Liquor Radio.
Unlike that 5 pound steak in Amarillo, you won’t have any trouble digesting 77 el Deora’s “Sirens” all at once and when it’s over, you’ll probably even be ready for more.
I know I am.
These guys are good.