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(Compass Records 4320 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/1/2001)
The roots rock scene has given us a lot of worthwhile music, with relatively younger artists drawing upon the tried and true ingredients of folk, country, early rock and other Americana. One of the finest bands in the genre has been Vigilantes of Love, whose principal creative force and sole constant member is Bill Mallonee, who started his group in the early 1990s in the musically fertile college town of Athens, Georgia, which also gave us groups ranging from R.E.M. to the B-52's. Mallonee and his group, over the course of nearly ten albums, have become known for their literate, expansive lyrics and ringing, almost anthemic rock marked by tasteful playing and Mallonee's distinctive vocals than can range from plaintive to vaguely heraldic. Their last album, Audible Sigh was one of their best. Produced by Buddy Miller in Nashville, it featured a guest appearance by Emmylou Harris among others, and epitomized the quality of writing that had marked the group, with lyrical scenes that evoked images of great open American spaces, even when the subject was more conventional.
For all the literate folk influence that Mallonee shows in his music, he comes from a rather different musical background. It turns out that his musical preferences in growing up were for the British pop of the 1960s and early Seventies, especially Beatles, the Kinks and the Who, along with American pop groups of that era like Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Monkees. His first instrument was a set of drums given to him in payment for a season's grass mowing, on which he banged along with his favorite Brit-pop tunes. By the late 1980s, he began to become more serious about his music, taking up the guitar and being influenced by groups of the period, including Elvis Costello and XTC. He was also surrounded by the Athens music scene with its diverse styles and distinctive pop approach of groups like R.E.M., the db's, and Let's Active.
By the time Mallonee became serious about songwriting, his musical influence was flowing from people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and he was drawn into the emerging Americana scene, where he has become one of its bright lights.
But during a fair amount of touring in England and Europe last year, Mallonee found himself again drawn to the music of his youth, with his manager unearthing many records by Brit pop bands. Mallonee had written close to forty songs from which to choose for his next album, which he described as "son of Audible Sigh." But after a US West coast tour at the beginning of this year, Mallonee had a change of heart -- he came home for his 20th wedding anniversary, and wrote sixteen new songs during February, putting aside all the other material, and coming to the realization that the Brit pop influence had become irresistible. So that shaped his new CD from the beginning.
The result, called Summershine is indeed quite a change from Audible Sigh. While Mallonee's lyrics remain as literate as ever, the subject this time is most often love, the guitars really jangle, and there's plenty of unabashed near-quotes from Sixites Brit-pop, with vocal harmonies, jingling tambourines, jangly 12-string electric guitars, a la Byrds, some bits of psychedelic studio effects, and some slightly quirky string arrangements. How the fans of Mallonee's weightier music will take to this well-named album remains to be seen, but it does succeed nicely at what it sets out to do, and Mallonee's writing remains very high in quality.
The same rhythm section that was part of Audible Sigh remain with Vigilantes of Love: bassist Jake Bradley and drummer Kevin Heuer. The album's co-producer with Mallonee, in this Athens, Georgia made CD was Tom Lewis, who played various incidental instrumentation. Also appearing is Randall Bramblett on keyboards.
The direction of the album becomes evident from the opening track. You Know That is full of those jangling guitars, and with the vocals multi-tracked, it's a little hard to tell that it's actually the usually slightly-pained Bill Mallonee singing -- though it's not hard to tell from the wordcraft of the lyrics. <<>>
She Is Fading seems to return somewhat to the Americana roots-rock groove that has been the Vigilantes of Love's stock in trade. <<>> But in keeping with this album's theme, they throw in a sequence that could easily have come from the Who. <<>>
With a more laid-back sound is Along for the Ride, though the piece continues to show Mallonee's 60s pop influence, along with a tip of the hat to fellow Athens popsters R.E.M. <<>>
If there is one track most likely to surprise the band's fans stylistically, it's Stand Beside Me, showing the most obvious Beatles influence on the album, with the song's Good Day Sunshine groove and bits of psychedelia. <<>>
Another song that is reminiscent of the Vigilantes of Love we have known is S.O.S. (The Crush of Velvet Glove Starlight). That almost triumphal quality that marks Mallonee's music comes out even on this more introspective set of lyrics. <<>>
Mallonee and company show their influence by 80s New Wavers on Puttin' Out Fires (with Gasoline), and they succeed in capturing the energy level of the scene while maintaining Mallonee's literate approach. <<>>
For much of this album, Mallonee deliberately lightens up from the usual bittersweet mood of the Vigilantes of Love. But one track stands as the best synthesis of this album's more pop-oriented direction and the thoughtful poetry of their last album. Making It Up as We Go Along is definitely a highlight of Summershine. <<>>
The CD ends with probably its most unusual song, Sailors (The Reddest Rose), with curious lyrics about the apparent loss of a friend. Stylistically, the song comes down somewhere between early Pink Floyd and early U2. <<>>
Bill Mallonee and his group Vigilantes of Love have taken quite a turn on their new CD Summershine. From the serious, literate, narrative folk and roots-rock of their previous albums to one unabashedly influenced by summer-of-love era British pop, complete with mostly love-song lyrics. How the group's fans will react to that remains to be seen. As someone who put the group's last album Audible Sigh on my short best-of-the-year list for the group's nonpariel lyrics and tasteful roots rock setting, I have to say that Summershine is not quite in that league. There are more authentic Brit-pop revival bands around, though few with the lyrical acumen of Bill Mallonee. While this CD is nicely performed, it does not really emphasize the group's strengths, which have developed over nearly a decade. Mallonee grew up on 60s British pop, and seeks to pay tribute to it, but his strength still lies in the expansive roots rock that marked the group's last album.
Sonically, we'll give the CD no better than a "B." With the album's retro-pop trappings, the mix and mastering job were oriented toward making the album loud, with lots of compression. But that robbed the recording of depth and made it sound rather thin and one-dimensional. And Mallonee's vocals are a bit further back in the mix than I would like.
Vigilantes of Love's Summershine is a nice, intelligent mixture of pop sensibility with worthy wordcraft. Mallonee and his group should be given credit for experimenting with a different direction, and generally succeeding. But it's just not this impressive band's best album.
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