This week’s Other Voice actually is a voice, as I’m reviewing a CD rather than a book. I’m going long with this one, but hopefully it’ll be worth it. To save space, I’ll be adding more links than a sausage factory, including several to some of my subject’s 50+ releases over the past 20+ years (yes, he’s very prolific). You could skip my lengthy preamble and jump down to the album cover, but I wouldn’t recommend it. 🙂 So let’s begin with some personal, unvarnished praise, then work my way into critic mode….
Over the past decade and a half, the music and moreso the words of Bill Mallonee and Vigilantes of Love have had a huge impact on me, especially at the some of the lowest points in my life. There’s not a lot of songwriters capable of walking alongside you during those low times and revealing how God is even there as well, let alone for an extended period. Bill’s rather a master at it, though—which simultaneously explains why he gets quite a bit of critical praise and why it’s never really translated into sales. But for those same reasons, I consider VOL’s Blister Soul and Audible Sigh and Bill’s last studio solo release Permafrost essential listening, and VOL’s Slow Dark Train to be one of the five best releases by anyone, ever.
And via my promotion of a couple “house concerts” in the past year at what my buddy (and Bill’s personally requested warm-up act) Tim Byrnes refers to as “the lovely and talented Mandolin Cafe,” Bill has gone from being a musician I admire to a genuine friend and even somewhat of a long-distance mentor. In a year where depending on God has once again gone from a truism to a palpable reality, I could hardly ask for someone better to walk alongside yet again.
And this new album is all about making it through the desert times, both figuratively and literally. In the 6 years since Permafrost, Bill’s released 11 half-hour-plus demo releases collectively called the Works (in) Progress Administration (or WPA). Most of the songs on this new album are culled from these, and benefit greatly from the full-band treatment. Stories of unlikely heroes and anti-heroes abound—Jack Kerouac, the victims of last year’s Massey Mine disaster, legendary hijacker D.B. Cooper—and there’s also plenty of songs alluding to Bill & wife/keyboardist/backup singer Muriah Rose’s own repeated relocations of the past half-decade (they’re now in Santa Fe) with lots of sold guitars to make the rent in their wake.
Thus, there’s an honesty, a stubborn dignity, and a deepening sense of grace that you just don’t find… well, much of anywhere anymore. While I might not put this new one quite on the level of “the big 4” above, I am enjoying and absorbing the heck out of it. So let’s get to it:
One more thing: If somehow I don’t utterly convince you to go for it, you can stream the entire album via the download link above. Then tell me I’m wrong. Or better yet, tell me I’m right and buy it—not necessarily in that order.
If you’re not familiar with Bill’s music, let’s put it this way: I’ve been known to compare him (especially on Slow Dark Train) to Bruce Cockburn fronting the Rolling Stones… and there was that early 21st-century psych-pop period where he references Robyn Hitchcock… but more often, and especially in the last 6-7 years, you’ll want to use Neil Young as your reference point.
I’m going to start with a relatively minor kvetch, which has to do with what’s not on this album***: There are songs from the WPA releases that didn’t make the cut, and some I miss more than others—particularly “Act of Courage” (from WPA8), “Straight, No Chaser” (WPA9), and where o where is “From Day One” (WPA3—”and the sky, was your friend/and the sky will take you back again” (sniff, sob… OK, I’m done)?
It’s also interesting to note what has and hasn’t changed from the original WPA versions (visit the links to them for further proof). For example, the wonderful opener “Carolina, Carolina” has morphed from a Neil Young pastiche to one of those Summershine-y psych-pop tunes, but with even more electric guitar (BTW, you can download a pseudonymous Summershine for free, right NOW). On the other hand, the highlight D.B. Cooper tune “The Ghosts That I Run With” (previously available on the WPA1-4 compilation CD Renderings) has been rendered even more Southern-Manic than the original.
So now, song-by-song: Again, “Carolina, Carolina” is wonderful, providing a great opening couplet for both song and album: “Time, she’s such an elusive girl / She makes such bad eye contact…” And for an opener for an album all about fresh starts, there’s still a wryness to the lines, “right back to that place of new beginnings / just like where all the old ones went.” The real message, though, comes later on:
and winter takes you by the hand just to make you a little older
but that’s not such a bad thing…
If you’re caught out there on life’s wasteland borders
with all your immigrant deficits in tow
you swim the river to a deeper truth
and the searchlight shines through your ghost.
“Shakers and Movers,” from WPA10, really benefits from the full-band treatment. You can hear the vitriol in this version much more clearly (slight language alert, but it certainly gets the message across):
Once my conscience was my sweetheart—hell, it was all over town
I’d’a married her in a heartbeat, if she’d just put the weapon down
But there are ladders to climb; there are soft hearts to resist
There are souls to be traded; there are asses to kiss
There’s a phrase the shakers and movers like to throw around
“Yer either on the way up… or on the way down….”
The upbeat-despite-its-lyrics “Just to Feel the Heat” is retains its original mid-tempo Americana mode, and I’m glad of it. I could speculate on the subject matter but won’t—aside from observing that the lyrics are clearly as much self-directed as anywhere else:
So basically, when push comes to shove
nobody knows what they’re made of
and there ain’t no foolin’ yourself this time
you’re the cruel joke and the bad punch line
You never told me your house was haunted
and it’s cold in the places you sleep
And I dunno if I’m just what you wanted
I burned it down, just to feel the heat.
The low-key epic “From the Beats Down to the Buddha” depicts the lifelong spiritual search of one Jack Kerouac, which ultimately circled him back to his childhood Catholicism—”and the mystery that pursued ya’ / from the Beats down to the Buddha / and the things you never could quite let go of.” “Go to Sleep With the Angels” addresses Bill & Muriah’s migration to the high desert, and throws in some nice Byrdsisms on the bridge.
“The Ghosts That I Run With” is, again, a Neil Youngish stomper that’ll even make you cheer on a hijacker. Go figure. And “Stop Breakin’ Down” continues the amped-up toughmindedness. I’d say more about both, but the ghosts that I run with, baby, they got other plans. So go find out for yourself. 🙂
“Bring You Around” brings back the Byrdsiness along with some self-pep-talk:
Somewhere the sky’s always bright
Somewhere the sky’s always blue
and that Love that you found — you know, the one where you drown?
It’s now living in you
If all hell should break loose
if it should thunder and storm
You know these vagabond hearts, they were lost from the start
they will find their way home
If “Spring in Your Spirit” sounded anything like a hair-metal band, I’d call it a power ballad. Fortunately, it doesn’t. Still, it’s a sweet song with a big solo, and all about rebirth in the midst of difficult circumstances: “Maybe God’s face has smiled upon us / look at that morning, filling up with promise / And this dark night of the soul / trade your grieving for some rock n’ roll / there’s Spring in your spirit / and everyone can hear it.”
“Keep the Home Fires Burning,” the Massey Mine song, cranks the amps back up even as it spells out the disaster within, replete with some righteous anger at the powers that made it possible: “I’ve gotten pretty good, as you’d expect / in this sarcophagus of Russian roulette…. / It’s a world with no air / and it’s a world with no sun / It’s a tomb for the living to plunder.”
The two brand-new songs close this out, they’re both good’uns. Interesting also (especially given my own recent wrestling with this) that they both delve into orphan imagery—come to think of it at this very moment, it hearkens very much back to one of Bill’s own early mentors, the late Mark Heard (get High Noon, thank me later). Anyway, “Ever Born Into This World” recalls Audible Sigh-era VOL, and returns to the idea of rebirth in the midst of difficulty:
You can lose yourself in the high desert
Of New Mexico
You can shed every skin you once lived in
It’s the loneliest sound I know…
You may come back like a prodigal son
To your Father’s home
Or you may steer clear for a thousand years
The Good Shepherd finds His own.
There’s a place within the cleft of rock
There’s a whisper with no words
That’s the one that she saves for all the castaways
Ever born into this world.
The closer, “Wide Awake With Orphan Eyes,” has all the Rickenbackers you can eat, and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way. In some ways, it sounds like an answer to the sense of loss that was all over Permafrost‘s “Pour, Kid” (and the rest of the album, for that matter). That eventually, things do start over. Thus, it also sounds (says/hopes the guy who now lives 6 hours up I-25 from him) that despite some of the transitional issues I know he’s faced, Santa Fe’s agreeing with Bill nicely:
Poor kid’s wound opening up
under a big sky town
air to breathe
space to fall down…
It was nearing Christmas
when you bade it all goodbye
I know those loneliness songs
are gonna need a bigger sky…
wide awake with your orphan eyes
blinking wondrous in the Autumn light
that passes right through you
standing by a barbed wire fence
at the scene of the accident
and your skies are cobalt blue
And your skies are cobalt blue.
Hah. Hope that was as much fun for you as it was for me—and that The Power and the Glory (and the rest of Bill’s catalogue—again, hit some links and GO FETCH) will be as rewarding.
Tomorrow: We lay it down a little differently than usual….
***P.S. After reading this, Bill informed me that there will in fact be a follow-up CD next year, comprised of other more “country-alt-ish” tracks recorded during the TP&TG sessions. Well, at least I’ve already submitted my choices. Throw “Neon Passes Through” on there, too, while y’r at it. 🙂