Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Amber Waves by Bill Mallonee (Review)

Amber Waves is a solid alt-country effort by Bill Mallonee along with his former bandmates Jacob Bradley and Kevin Heuer.  The album, produced on a shoe-string budget, is a haunting yet hopeful collection of tight melodies and honest narratives.  Musically, Amber Waves acts as a photo album of past efforts by Vigilantes of Love.  "Break in the Clouds" and "To the Nines" recall the Struggleville sound, others like "What You Take and What You Leave Behind" sound like they were part of the Blister Soul sessions, and "Pillow of Stars," "Walking Disaster," and "Once Your Heart Gets Broken" reflect both Audible Sigh and Summershine.

Bill's lyrical work is still going strong.  For example, he opens the second track "To the Nines," with the line: "Well the rain and the wind/ they're at it again/Quarrelling lovers/Better run for cover/Yeah the rivers will rise/No one's surprised/You're gonna get baptized/One way or another."

The album is very up-tempo.  Of the 13 tracks (one is repeated for a total of 14), only "Yeah Yeah Yeah (I've got faith like butterfly wings)," "Long Since Gone" and "Into God Knows What" are slower, introspective and primarily acoustic.

Personally, I find the highlight of the album to be the Byrdseque "Walking Disaster"-- both musically and lyrically.  The jangly Rickenbacker, the driving bass, and the snare rolls move this three minute pop song from the chute to the finish line coming up for air.  In fact, there's hardly time to consider the brilliant lyrical pictures that Bill paints.  For instance, he draws a seedy picture of our depraved humanity with the following: "You stand and you make your confession/ in the suit of old clothes that you stole/ Offering your vain protestations/doused heavily in cheap cologne." He follows that in the chorus with the hopeful truth: "And the river of love, she still rolls on / Long time after the well has run dry."  Which seems to be more than a fitting reflection on Bill's career.  The ever elusive fame and glory (as well as a decent living) keep coming up dry, but he continues to roll on with his musings and melodies on struggles, faith and redemption.

If you are a VoL fan, this is a must have.  If you're new to Bill's work, click on and give it a listen.

Setting the Stage for a Review of Amber Waves by Bill Mallonee

It was April, 1995.  I had read something in a magazine about a little band from Athens, GA called Vigilantes of Love, and I was curious.  I stopped in at The Compact Disc Store on Jefferson in Baton Rouge, which was the best chance of spotting a hard to find disc if Paradise Records didn't have it. Not only did the Compact Disc store have it, but they had a wonderful policy of allowing the customer to open and listen to a cd without any obligation to buy.  So, I slipped the headphones on and after the initial silence, heard the opening riff of "Blister Soul." Within three weeks, the disc was beyond heavy rotation-- it dominated my listening, and my friends were already tired of hearing me speak of VoL.

Bill Mallonee & co. kept the albums coming, and I kept trying to find them.  The band got tighter, the songs more accessible, and I was certain this little band from Athens was going to break into mainstream notoriety.

Then the three strikes hit the mitt.

First, in 1999, Audible Sigh, an alt-country masterpiece with production by Buddy Miller and BGVs by Julie Miller and Emmylou Harris was set for release through Pioneer Music Group. A fair amount of publicity was in place, and it looked like this would be the album to break VoL into a wider audience.

It didn't happen.  Pioneer Music Group folded holding the rights to Audible Sigh.
Strike one!

The next two years found the band touring heavily and trying to find a label that would launch the record.  Ironically, the album would find three different launch pads... all met with little more than an audible sigh.  Neither True Tunes nor Compass Records could muster enough interest to ensure much of a listening audience.  Frustration increased for Bill and his road-weary band of players.

The next two strikes to hit the leather are somewhat cloudy in my mind as far as which occurred first. Regardless, they both were devastating to the march up the hill of commercial success.
The band was touring in England ('Cross the Big Pond) and after a show, they were robbed.  Not only did they lose their equipment, but one of the guys was threatened with a syringe. Four guys living on a shoe-string, losing the tools of their trade, and asking "what if..." about the incident with the needle... Strike two!

Then there were three.  2001 saw VoL scale down to a three-man outfit--tighter than a new snare drum-- and take on a new sound.  Summershine (somehow in the face of all the adversity) was the happiest sounding release yet.  It was Beatles meet the Byrds, with jangly Rickenbacker, driving power-pop bass, and snare rolls.  "Surely," I thought, "this will be the one."  Compass Records had set a release date for this happy-go-lucky batch of British-invasion-sounding love songs: September,  2001.

9/11/01... Strike three!

Within a few months, VoL dissolved, and Bill embarked on a solo career.  While Bill continued releasing quality music at a break-neck pace (just take a look at his discography:, it seemed to be a frustrated effort.  It was as if Audible Sigh and Summershine were the summit, and somewhere just beyond, the wheels began to fail the wagon.  Bill courageously marched forward, determined to write, record and tour as much as possible.  Somewhere around 2004-2005, Bill's marriage failed, he re-married and continued to record and tour (coffee shops, churches, house shows, etc.). Nearly ten years later, and Bill is still at it.  He releases 3-4 EPs per year, sometime with an additional studio album.  He has received numerous nods as a songwriter, but his commercial success has failed to produce a blip on the radar.