Vigilantes of Love,
(Compass, 2001)

The Vigilantes of Love, a long-running and prolific band headed by songwriter and lead vocalist Bill Mallonee, are known for their intense musical stew of folk, alt-country and rock. However, their lyrics, which mix Flannery O'Connor-like Southern Gothicism, raw honesty and Christian faith with Mallonee's hoarse, almost anguished vocal delivery, are what really make them stand out.

They're also renowned for the energy of their live shows, and for an artistically uncompromising DIY attitude that has always made their relationship with major labels uneasy. Always critically acclaimed, the Vigilantes found their widest audience yet with their previous album, Audible Sigh; on Summershine, however, fans will find the sound a significant departure rather than a direct follow-up to the band's previous successes. Summershine is VoL's most pop-oriented, accessible and upbeat-sounding album ever, and some might be tempted to call it a sell-out. However, founder Mallonee has stated in interviews that the stylistic changes, which leaven VoL's Americana sound with generous doses of Brit-pop, were driven not by commercial considerations, but by a desire to experiment with new musical directions. This exploration was prompted by a recent tour of the U.K. and by Mallonee's longstanding admiration for the songcraft of British bands like Radiohead and Travis.

The incorporation of these sounds is evident throughout Summershine, especially in the chiming, jangly guitars and quick, light drumming on tracks such as "You Know That (Is Nothing Knew)" and even in Mallonee's singing style. On "Happy Being Lonely, Lonely Being Happy," Mallonee's own melancholy mingles effortlessly with Travis-style moody pop. However, the band's roots in No Depression-style county/folk/rock remain evident, and the result is a pleasantly organic-sounding stylistic fusion.

Much of Mallonee's lyrical output has resulted from the tension between faith and doubt, hope and despair; he's been outspoken about both his evolving understanding of Christianity and his struggles with clinical depression. These concerns are somewhat muted on Summershine, but hardly absent. The overarching theme seems to be love and relationships -- the bond between two troubled childhood friends, the joys and tensions of married life, the pain of rejected love, the tension between love and lust. Although not all the songs on Summershine seem to have the blazing lyrical originality of Mallonee's earlier work, they are still lovely and well-crafted, with some gorgeous lines like "...the storms are too strong on the sea of my winter/look at me; I'm all cursed with this thirst to remember/if my lips touch the host will I be all right/don't we all feel the crush of velvet glove starlight" (from "S.O.S.").

I've always tended to prefer the Vigilantes' quieter, more folk-influenced songs, so it'll be no surprise that my favorite track on Summershine is the final one, a hushed, almost prayer-like tune about one childhood friend's guilt for not being able to stop the other's slide into despair and self-destruction. The lyrics are profoundly moving yet unsentimental, and I was haunted by the refrain: "There are some secrets/I'm not so proud of;/I've never told anyone/Not even God."

This record has something on it for almost everyone, and deserves to draw a broader audience for the Vigilantes' work. Unfortunately, this will be their last outing as a full band. Several months ago, Mallonee announced that they intended to disband, partly for financial reasons and partly to pursue other projects. Fans do have something to look forward to, however; the prolific Mallonee is releasing a solo album later this year, and plans to continue touring.

[ by Erin Bush ]
Rambles: 29 June 2002

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