Hailed as one of the 100 Greatest Living songwriters by Paste Magazine, he is, like Townes Van Zandt, a nearly unparalleled songwriter’s songwriter. Over the course of 40+ albums, as the frontman of his former band, regional favorites Vigilantes of Love, and through his relentless solo output of the past decade, Mallonee has consistently delivered insightful, timely commentary on society and the state of affairs, human dignity and struggle, and shined a light on his inner life and spiritual quest through his revealing and weathered songs. He is well-deserving of being considered one of the great voices in American folk and rock music, and counts the likes of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Americana master Buddy Miller, who co-produced Vigilantes of Love’s Killing Floor and Audible Sigh, respectively, as fans. Emmylou Harris even lends her voice to the former’s shimmering “Resplendent”. As his legions of supporters, who funded his latest studio record via Kickstarter, surely know, his work is the stuff of a legend among us.
Since the dissolution of Vigilantes of Love in 2001, Mallonee has quietly recorded and self-released over ten records and assorted EPs, not to mention his eleven Works (in) Progress Administration (WPA) series of home recordings ranging from collections inspired by the Upper Big Bend Mining Disaster of 2010, Coal Dust Soul, to the recent recession, joblessness, and lack of faith in American governance, Drifter Songs.
Cowboy Angel Music is pleased to present Mallonee’s return-to-studio tour de force, the big sounding, rocking, and fully realized The Power & The Glory. His first proper studio album in years, recorded by Matt Reifler at St. Francis University, The Power & The Glory is intelligent, catchy, and mature songwriting from a master. It may be his best album yet.
These songs, initially placed on various WPA EPs of the past few years, are recut here in their full splendor. The Power & The Glory is a jangly, guitar-driven record with a touch of grittiness and dirt in the thick, layered electric guitar parts. There’s an understated grandeur here, as Mallonee’s signature vocal stylings (with hints of Tom Petty and Kathleen Edwards) twist in accessible melodies at the forefront of an Americana rock & roll wall of sound. Traces of Neil Young a la Ragged Glory, The Jayhawks, and Tom Petty are clear throughout. “The Ghosts That I Run With” sounds like an expanded, garage rock take on Young’s “Old Man”, and the softer, marching drum beat-propelled “Ever Born into This World” recalls the melodicism of “I Am a Child”. But these performances are never derivative, but highly nuanced and subtle. The supportive, secondary guitar lines underpin each of the tracks, providing added color and emotion. And throughout, the harmonies, piano, and organ pads of Muriah Rose, Mallonee’s wife and touring partner, further enhance each song tastefully.
Album highlights include the attitude-fueled “The Shakers & The Movers”, a commentary on corporate greed, mid-tempo rocker “Just to Feel the Heat”, the memorable personal journey tale “Go to Sleep With the Angels”, the pulsing pop gem “Bring You Around”, and hopeful slow roller “Spring In Your Spirit”, with its woodwind-esque organ and blissfuly grand distorted guitar lines.
And then there’s the content. Ghosts and card-table imagery run rampant in the songs, unsurprisingly perhaps, as the thoughtful Mallonee explores the past, wounds scarred and healing, and the submission to and solace of his faith. A true artist, Mallonee is crushingly honest, allowing us to find ourselves as we peer into his own dark terrain not without promise.
Here we find commentary on the patterns and orbits of our lives, the counting of the “ledger sheets of the years”. We are fallible, Mallonee tells us. We live with our decisions and persevere through hardships. We do what we know best. Years on the road, scraping from show to show, a broken family (“I burned it down just to feel the heat”), nostalgia for your child’s early, carefree years (“it’s a far cry from the backyard of laughter and cartoons”), a move to the desert lands of New Mexico (“You can lose yourself in the high deserts of New Mexico/ you can shed every skin ya ever lived in/ it’s the loneliest sound I know”). These songs speak of the incomparable human spirit. They are Mallonee’s but they are our own.
Most importantly, though, there’s hope: “Away with the fear/ announce a new year where mercy is born” (“Bring You Around”); “And this dark night of the soul/ trade your grieving for some rock n’ roll/ There’s Spring in your spirit”; “Maybe God’s face has smiled upon us” (“Spring in Your Spirit”). And, mining his own Christian faith, he finds peace that forgiveness and comfort will surely be ours: “You may come back like a prodigal son to your Father’s home/ or ya may steer clear for a thousand years ‘til the Shepherd finds His own” (“Ever Born Into this World”).
There’s a place for everyone at the table, and it has been a long trail of lessons learned for Mallonee, a road worn, wise philosopher. The Power & The Glory calls out for oneness and redemption. Along with his staggering catalogue of material, this record is brimming with the awe and wonder of Whitman, the Beatnik spirit of mystical searching, the folk and even punk-rock ethos of Guthrie, Dylan, The Clash, and Johnny Cash alike, and the hard lived teachings of a rare artist. As Mallonee would tell it: “I’m a lyric guy telling a story, more or less, of brokenness within and without. We’ve felt like wandering gypsies the last six years.” The Power & The Glory, he adds, is “what all that uncertainty, adversity, and inspiration brought forth. From the sound to the themes to the very delivery, it’s all here.”
The Czech author Milan Kundera wrote that his characters are his own unrealized possibilities. So too, Mallonee’s lyrics are either precisely that or a very mirror into ourselves. “There’s a place within the cleft of rock/ there’s a whisper with no words,” he sings in “Ever Born Into This World”. Go to that place. Find the passage, and listen in. Hear the sound and words of one of Americas’ greatest unknown singing poets. There you will find yourself, awaiting.
The Power & The Glory
Bill Mallonee’s return-to-studio tour de force. Intelligent, catchy, and mature songwriting from a master. Big sounding and rocking, with hints of R.E.M., Neil Young & Crazy Horse, The Jayhawks, The Byrds, Tom Petty. One of the finest records from Paste Magazine’s “100 Greatest Living Songwriters”.
1. Carolina, Carolina
2. The Shakers & The Movers
3. Just to Feel the Heat
4. From the Beats Down to the Buddha
5. Go to Sleep With the Angels
6. The Ghosts That I Run With
7. Stop Breakin’ Down
8. Bring You Around
9. Spring In Your Spirit
10. Keep the Home Fires Burning
11. Ever Born Into This World
12. Wide Awake With Orphan Eyes (Mirror Ball Moon)
Bill Mallonee has performed with: Buddy Miller, Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, R.E.M., Dwight Yoakam, Jim Lauderdale, Shawn Mullins, Sufjan Stevens, Peter Case, North Mississippi All-Stars, Alejandro Escovedo, Glen Phillips, Peter Mulvey, Mark Olson (The Jayhawks), Gin Blossoms, and more.
“The poetry and intelligence of Bill Mallonee’s songs rivals Dylan’s, and the spirituality and inspiration of them is like the timeless hymns. He’s one of my favorite all time artist.” - Buddy Miller (No Depression Magazine‘s Artist of the Decade)
“…the best folk-rock act nobody’s ever hear of… The intelligence and intensity of Mallonee’s writing has elicited comparisons to Dylan from his loyal underground admirers. Given the consistency and quality of Mallonee’s work over eight albums, he is arguably the first writer since John Prine to make the comparison plausible.” - New York Press
“Dylan-tinged vocal and introspective lyrics that spin out big-picture stories imbued with chilling small details.” – Billboard
“Bill Mallonee… [has] remained fascinated with the shadowy emotional toils and struggles inherent in the American experience, compelling, insightful, [he] continues to probe through Americana rock and roll proving that sometimes the only story worth telling is that of the journey.” - Rolling Stone
“Mallonee’s songs give words to shadowy fears of intimacy, of it’s loss, even of the value of what he feels compelled to do.” - USA Today
Bill Mallonee is a screw-up. He’ll tell you so, and he’s now made 40 albums about it, both as a solo artist and with his former band Vigilantes of Love. He’s a poetic screw-up though, a master of a thousand-and-one metaphors depicting the depravity of man, and every so often he lets in little glimmers of hope and the promise of positive change. He does it again on The Power & the Glory, his strongest album in years, rocking those metaphors with Neil Young guitar licks and a Dylanesque howl.”- Andy Whitman, Image Magazine
Paste Magazine (Sept. 2011 article, full text):
When this magazine published its list of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters in 2006, the most obscure name on the roster was Bill Mallonee. As the leader of Georgia’s Vigilantes of Love and later as a solo artist, he had never sold many records nor played very large venues, but he impressed enough of the critics and musicians who voted in the poll to land at #65. Peter Buck and Buddy Miller were so taken with him that they produced the VOL’s Killing Floor and Audible Sigh albums respectively.
Mallonee, a skinny singer-guitarist with round glasses and shaggy dark hair, caught his colleagues’ attention by marrying the literary ambitions of his two biggest heroes, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, to the jangly guitars of his 1980s contemporaries from the Southeast: R.E.M., the dBs, Let’s Active and the Swimming Pool Q’s. Overstuffed with metaphors, ornamented with chiming guitars and informed by his spiritual quest for happiness in an unhappy world, Mallonee’s songs were not easily forgotten by the few who heard them.
His surprise landing on the list didn’t appreciably change his fortunes. He was still operating without a label, a manager, an agent, a publicist or a radio promoter; he and his second wife/keyboardist Muriah Rose were still doing everything themselves. But he remained amazingly prolific; between his 1990 debut, Jugular, and his new release, The Power & the Glory, Mallonee has averaged more than an album per year. The new disc is the first he’s recorded in a real studio since moving last year from Georgia/North Carolina, where he’d spent almost his entire life, to a small town between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.
“We had to get out of there,” Mallonee says. “More people were moving into the South, and they seemed more anxiety-ridden. There were more people on their cell phones, more near-accidents on the highway. We ended up in New Mexico, in the middle of a big organic farm scene. A lot of people who had burned out on the white-collar world decided they were going to grow organic food and came here to do that. What we’re doing is somewhat analogous; it’s a place to let the songs blossom. We’re working without a label and publicists just like these farmers are working without big machines and chemicals.
“This is high desert, so the landscape is way different than North Georgia, and that affected the new album. Sonically it’s more of an upbeat record because most of the days here are dry and sunny with blue skies. It’s a brighter record in a lot of ways.”
A lot of that brightness comes from the shimmering layers of guitar that Mallonee has multi-tracked. Songs like “Bring You Around” and “Wide Awake with Orphan Eyes” open with sparkling folk-rock licks that establish a hopeful atmosphere before the vocal ever enters.
“In the last two or three years, I’ve been up into the guitar a lot, learning more harmonies, more secondary and tertiary positions. It was a matter of necessity; there aren’t as many strong players here as there were in Georgia. If I’m playing a house concert with just me and Muriah or I’m recording at home on a four-track, my guitar has to generate a lot of the music. So I’m learning how to be more than a rhythm guitarist; it’s been a real joy. I’m a big fan of that psychedelic-folk era of the ’60s like the Byrds, those ringing arpeggios you hear on Neil’s ‘Powderfinger’ or a lot of Steve Malkmus’ songs. You hear a lot of that on this new album.”
Not many musicians reinvent themselves as instrumentalists at age 56, but Mallonee has always had a funny relationship with time. A longtime drummer, he didn’t learn the guitar or write songs until he was 31 and didn’t release his first album until he was 35. “I was just getting started in rock ’n’ roll,” he laughs, “at an age when a lot of people were getting out.” And he keeps going when almost everyone else his age is either famous or working a day job.
“I tried to get a Christmas job at Walmart once,” he recounts, “and when I filled out the application, I had to put down, ‘Musician for 20 years.’ I could see in their eyes what they were thinking, ‘Musician, drugs, irresponsible.’ What they actually said was, ‘Thank you for the application, Mr. Mallonee, we’ll call if we’re interested.’ I realized, ‘If I can’t get a job at Walmart at Christmas, I can’t get a job anywhere.’ This is all I can do. On the other hand, this is what I really love, so I have to take the famine with the feast.”
On “Carolina, Carolina,” the opening song for the new album, Mallonee creates a cascade of guitars and sings, “Ah, time, she’s such an elusive girl; she makes such bad eye contact.” She may be elusive, but she’s not unkissable if you’re persistent. In chasing her, the song’s narrator finds that his “straight paths got a little bent” but the pursuit led him to a “place of new beginnings.” Only by sweet-talking time, he implies, can you win the kisses of second chances—relearning your instrument or relocating your life. You still end up with gray hairs like the ones in Mallonee’s bristling beard, but you don’t go numb. “Winter takes you by the hand just to make you a li’l older,” he sings, “but that’s not such a bad thing.”
“That ‘li’l older’ line is autobiographical,” Mallonee admits. “I feel I’ve gotten better. I still feel like I have something to say and a good way to say it. Who I am as a person is fully integrated into the songs, and the person I was five years ago or five years from now is not the person I am now. So I’m saying something different now than I did before or will in the future. You do get smarter as you get older. You learn how to say no sometimes.
“Michael Stipe once told me, after R.E.M. decided not to tour behind Automatic for the People, ‘Bill, always remember to save something for yourself.’ Then he turned and walked away. I’ve thought about it ever since. He’s right; you have to save some coins for yourself. You have to keep a few embers lit for the next fire. When it’s not fun anymore, you can’t romanticize it. That’s why I finally shut down the Vigilantes of Love.”
Also on the new album is “From the Beats Down to the Buddha,” the latest in Mallonee’s growing collection of songs about Jack Kerouac. Mallonee, sounding even more Neil Youngish than usual, sings of Kerouac leaving behind “Lowell’s lonely factories” to travel “these asphalt vibrations” with “knapsack dreams.” Even when Kerouac ended up in Big Sur, drinking too much and losing his mind as he talked to the ocean, he still believed it would all make sense when he got it all down on his Underwood typewriter.
And that’s what made the new Southern rock of R.E.M., the Swimming Pool Qs, the dBs and the Vigilantes of Love different from the old Southern rock, Mallonee believes; these new songwriters had gone to college and read the novels of Kerouac, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. They cared about language, especially Southern language.
“The thread that ran through that music was more than just the jangly guitars,” he argues; “there was a Southernness to our music that I didn’t hear in other indie-rock scenes when I traveled around the U.S. It wasn’t the Southernness of the Allman Brothers; it was the Southernness of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. They were asking the big questions: Is this a world that makes sense? Is it a world where love has a place? If so, why is there adversity and suffering? Why does God seem so distant at times?
“Those are the key questions for both religion and art and where they converge is where the greatest art results. Faulkner and O’Connor were great with those questions. So was Kerouac. So were Tom Waits and Johnny Cash. I like to think I’m part of that. When you’re writing pop songs, it ends up being less a treatise or an essay and more a nudge in the ribs. But the advantage is you get to speak in a vernacular shorthand that the audience readily understands.”