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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1199

CD graphic Bill Mallonee & Vigilantes of Love: Audible Sigh
by George Graham

(Compass 4295 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/24/2000)

The "roots rock" or "Americana" movement is one of the best things that's happening in rock music these days. Started as a reaction to soul-less electronic dance beats, fad-a-minute teenage pop bands, and the aimless grunge of the alternative rock scene, roots-rockers as their name implies, go back to music's origins in folk, country and blues, and serve it up with ringing guitars, old-fashioned Hammond organs, and sincere vocals. The music has found an audience among at least two generations of fans, younger listeners who grow tired of the cookie-cutter sameness of "alternative" rock -- a term that has become an oxymoron -- and those old enough remember Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and folk-rockers like the Byrds.

As is so often the case, the popularity of roots-rock groups like the Jayhawks and Counting Crows has spawned a raft of other bands in the genre of varying quality, some wearing their sincerity so prominently on their sleeves that it smacks of exactly the sort of pretense the roots-rockers were supposed to avoid. While overall, the movement has probably created more good music than bad, there are still a few real standouts in the genre. One is the group called Vigilantes of Love, who just released an excellent new CD called Audible Sigh.

Now known as Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love, the Athens, Georgia, based band got its start in 1992, as part of the active Peach State music scene which spawned R.E.M. a decade earlier. The Vigilantes' first CD, Killing Floor was co-produced by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck. Later, group released three albums for the Capricorn label, gaining much critical accolade in national publications and developing a considerable following in both the US and Europe. The band's records have ranged in sound from almost folk to harder-edged rock, but all have been held together by Bill Mallonee's strong writing, with a kind of expansive lyrical style that conjures up images of wide-open spaces even when the song is about something more intimate. Mallonee, if he were not heading a rock band would likely be the insightful folksinger, strumming and waxing philosophical. But Vigilantes of Love are decidedly electric, and their performances are almost anthemic in their power. The group's name change reflects the fact that except for leader Mallonee, there is no one else in common with the Vigilantes of Love core personnel appearing on their 1995 album Blister Soul.

While Mallonee and his colleagues tended to record near home in Georgia, for this album, they went to Nashville to work with producer Buddy Miller, who is well-known as a songwriter. Miller also plays various guitars, and is joined by the present Vigilante lineup, Jacob Bradley on bass and Kevin Heuer on drums. Miller brings in other guests including most notably Emmylou Harris on backing vocals on one track, plus Miller's wife Julie Miller also added some singing. Mallonee himself is heard on guitar, and he comes up with the great resounding riffs that make this album so strong. Buddy Miller was a good choice as producer for this CD: as a acclaimed songwriter in his own right, and someone who has produced some worthwhile singer-songwriter albums, Miller focussed on Mallonee's songs, allowing the strong writing to flourish, but without losing the electric sound of the band. The Nashville environment does not, however, make its presence felt very prominently in the music. There's hardly a steel guitar to be heard anywhere on Audible Sigh.

The CD begins with one of its best tracks, Goes without Saying, which combines a stirring folk-rock-influenced backing with thoughtful, philosophical lyrics. <<>>

A real highlight of the CD is Resplendent, the song that features Emmylou Harris' harmony vocals. Ms. Harris is essentially the icing on the cake to what is already fine song, with lyrical images evoking the Dust Bowl in a haunting musical setting. <<>>

Somewhat rockier in arrangement, but no less strong lyrically is Now As the Train Pulls Away. This song of parting seems as if it would be better served by perhaps a more folk-influenced backing. <<>>

If there is a little country influence seeping in from the Nashville environs, it shows on Extreme North of the Compass, a great upbeat piece in whose cryptic lyrics the cold of the North serve as a metaphor for pessimism. <<>>

Mallonee has the ability to take rather common song subjects and imbue them with a kind of epic dimension. The subject of Nothing Like a Train is a more or less everyday romantic breakup. But in Mallonee's hands, it turns into wide-open geography of the heart. It's a good example of what sets this group apart from others in the genre. <<>>

Mallonee's lyrics frequently have a dark quality, but with a lingering flicker of hope. Another of this album's highlights epitomizes this outlook. Good Luck Charm embodies this bittersweet dichotomy in a great musical sweep of ringing guitars. <<>>

The sense of optimism is a lot stronger on Starry Eyed, which rises to almost an anthemic level musically. <<>>

The album ends with a song called Solar System, with more acoustic instrumentation, which despite its more laid-back, back-porch sound is another highlight of the album lyrically. <<>>

Bill Mallonee is a first-rate singer-songwriter whose lyrics and songwriting are on the par with the best of the new folk scene. But Mallonee's music tends to be big in scope, so the rootsy rock band setting helps bring the songs to life, just as the electric band did with Bob Dylan 35 years ago. His group of varying personnel, Vigilantes of Love, has for eight years been served as a vehicle for his songs that epitomize the Americana rock genre. The Vigilantes of Love albums have been of somewhat varying quality over the years, with changing personnel and producers. The new CD, Audible Sigh is the group's best in about five years, thanks to the tasteful work of producer Buddy Miller in Nashville. The album captures the best qualities of roots rock while keeping the focus on Mallonee's great lyric writing and distinctive, almost plaintive vocals.

The sound quality of this CD is also commendable. It's an electric rock recording without apology, but the sonic clarity is quite good, and the dynamic range is not bad for this kind of music.

The current proliferation of decent roots-rock bands is almost too much of a good thing. There are so many chiming guitars, churning Hammond organs and heartfelt singers that it becomes hard to stand out in the crowd. Bill Mallonee and his Vigilantes of Love have been at it since the beginning of the Americana revival, and are a reminder of how much this literate, unpretentious, honest and often stirring music can offer.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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