Weeks later, I’m still trying to put my finger on exactly what’s different about this album, and why the danged thing won’t get out of my rotation—as if that were a problem…. But you if (and its creator) can bear with me, I’m gonna try to flesh this puppy out a bit….
Bill Mallonee. Lands & Peoples. CD $20, vinyl $30, download $12.99. Whatever your medium: Go fetch.
Perhaps it’s most accurate to say: Five years into his “Santa Fe period” (even though he’s up the road in Taos now), this album feels more “lived in” than the others so far from this period. It’s still a Bill album, and if you have any familiarity at all with his (especially recent) work you know what that means by now. (If not: Think Neil Young and the Byrds, with a zest of Woody Guthrie.)
Still, Lands & Peoples gives off a vibe that there’s a greater acceptance on Bill’s part of who he is and where he’s at. It’s self-aware without being self-conscious or self-promoting. He’s no longer highlighting his struggles for us, even as he’s taking full ownership of them. (Go read the liner notes for more evidence of this quasi-thesis.) Even the songs themselves seem to be synthesizing his influences more than jumping out at you this time ’round. He is what he is, whoever’s gonna notice or care pretty much already has, and therefore he can just getting on with being it. (Still, it usually works out that as we come to terms with ourselves, all those good things we kept demanding/expecting in the past finally happen. Here’s hoping—he’s more than overdue that.)
I’d still have to say that The Power and the Glory remains the best album from the “Santa Fe resurgence” so far; on the other hand, that one had the benefit of five years’ worth of demos to choose from (and when we talk Bill, we’re talking hundreds of songs). This one stands right alongside Amber Waves, though, especially in the little musical tweaks that happen along the way. So anyway, digging in those tweaks, here’re some of the things that jump out at me:
• Bill’s always been a master of self-contradiction, but he seems to have ramped up his game here: “No more dark clouds… at least for a little while”; “Look at all of the boom—look at all of the bust”; “There’s nothing like the past, to tell you who you are / There’s nothing like the present, to tell you who you aren’t”….
• There’s something about the chordage and the slightly strained singing of “Hide Me in the Darkness” that hits me every time. And it’s hard (for me, anyway) not to like a chorus that includes the lines, “Hide me in the darkness / There’s sure plenty to go around….”
• Something about the quiet, deliberate guitar chording on “String of Days” reminds me of Lou Reed during his own creative resurgence period of the ’80s-90s. Just sayin’.
• “Sangre de Christos” and “Hope the Kids Make It Out” are decidedly more upbeat than a lot of what else is here, so it’s hard not to perk up when they’re on. Muriah Rose’s backups and piano on the former bring the song to another level here as well. (And in the case of the latter, I can’t help thinking that he took that title phrase—used by any number of fellow 50something empty nesters—and turned it into something a tad more profound :)).
• The body of the quiet “Northern Lights and Southern Cross” does a great job of evoking the “ghosts from the past making the rounds”—but then, you can actually hear those ghosts in the coda. One of those “you gotta hear it late at night to truly appreciate it” kinda things.
• The title song is Bill going “full Woody,” and after innumerable nods to Mr. Guthrie (and even more so, his at least spiritual compadre Mr. Steinbeck) over the years, it’s a joy to hear it sound so natural here. Again, that “lived in” thing.
• “I’ll Swing With Everything I’ve Got” is the elegy here, and as always brings the lyrics, and again a greater degree of self-acceptance: “On every page you will shine just like a star / And if that deck is stacked? / We’ll just laugh & leave the table / And leave the dealer all alone there in the dark.” Nice to hear Bill hit that high note at the end, too. (Likewise, props for the following “swing” song, “Swing It, Joe” and the line “Kingdoms rise & kingdoms fall / ‘tween happy hour & last call.”)
• And I’m not sure it whether it’s intentional or not, but play the closer “It All Turns to Dust” back-to-back with the opener “At Least for a Little While,” and tell me it doesn’t feel like the CD’s musically looping back to where it started as well… just a nice culmination.
So there we are, so far. Again, there’s just something a little different going on here—and a sense that something even better’s up the road. And maybe, just maybe, you can pitch in and help make that start to happen for the guy, too.