Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Review of Bill Mallonee's WINNOWING

Bill Mallonee & The Darkling Planes: Winnowing

The life of a troubadour is often romanticized. Whether it’s a fascination with the mysterious Woody Guthrie or the freedom supposed in Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” most of us have fantasized about being the man with a song and a guitar, rambling through the world and leaving a trail of songs, like gold nuggets along the Rio Grande.  It sounds great for romance, but what about reality?

Bill Mallonee may be the closest thing we have to this romantic idea in the flesh. Writing and recording since the late 1980s, Bill has released close to sixty projects—most full-length, some EPs. Bill knows the blistering road, the intimate house concert, and the small change to show for it at the end of the night, yet he continues to put pen to paper and fingers to fret board as he shares his gift of song.

With no superstructure of support or financial safety net, he depends on his fan base to continue funding the projects. Earlier this year, Bill decided to try Kickstarter, the now famous crowd sourcing platform. Within days of posting his project, Kickstarter suffered a security breach, and Bill opted to pull the plug rather than jeopardize any of his fans’ financial safekeeping.  Call it a false start, or just another unlucky bump in the road; Bill dropped back to taking pre-orders through his site and Bandcamp.

Winnowing, Bill’s latest record, is now in post-production and scheduled to release in early September, 2014. I recently spoke with him about the new songs, and even scored a chance to give the tracks a listen.  Here’s what I found.  (You can hear my interview with Bill HERE.)
Bill told me that there’s something about the desert canyons and the big sky that beckon
contemplation and reflection.  The vastness of the night sky brings a perspective of smallness and the need to trace one’s steps.  This new batch of songs bears witness to this sentiment.
The opening three tracks (“Dover Beach”, “Those Locust Years” and “Old Beat Up Ford”) blend together in mellow, contemplative swirl, as if mesmerizing the listener like a desert sky. They pull us in with lines like “Now I am not a scoffer / withholding his thanks / my purse it is empty / my heart overflows its banks” in the opener.  The reflection continues in track 3: “sunlight sifting through the shadows / it seemed brighter way back then / and I walked the world in wonder / all dressed up in my new skin.”    

“Got Some Explaining to Do” breaks the opening spell with its noisy guitars a la Neil Young and reminiscent of The Power & the Glory (2011). Full of clever lines and social commentary, Bill admits an evil in the world, but refuses to answer for it; instead he writes, “no matter what the disguise is/ well, you gotta give the devil his due / but whoever he is / he’s got some explaining to do.”  

The next two tracks “Dew Drop Inn” and “Blame it on the Desert Whispering” could have easily found themselves on Bill’s album Dolorosa (2013). The stripped-down musical arrangement and the narrative focus of geography capture the sense of place that is unmistakably New Mexico. For instance, Bill sings on the former “The road winds hard and the road winds cruel / hearts being what they are / Let’s just say it will be ok / and I love you, just because.”  

“In the New Dark Ages” has the signature of one of Bill’s most ambitious albums, Locket Full of Moonlight (2002). With Beatles-esque organ and guitars, Mallonee explores the current state of expectations concerning relationships where “no one trusts anyone… [and] they forget to have fun.”  

The album was originally going to share its title with track 8 “Hall of Mirrors / Room Full of Woe,” and that doesn’t surprise me. This track is the musical epicenter of the album, with its layered guitars grabbing the spotlight.  And again, Mallonee delivers a tight metaphor with the following: “Now Death is a boxer / always stalking the ring / grabs all the prize money / and a few other things / with a 1-2 punch that’s been stealing the show.” The track’s haunting tone continues, but the lyric turns a hopeful corner with “what is lost is nothing compared to what gets found.”

“Now You Know” is like a letter to an old friend, with as many questions as statements. With its delicate instrumentation, the song sounds as if it could be performed on horseback, meandering through the canyon. And once again, Mallonee weaves an historical perspective into his craft with the following:  “Well Caesar sat upon a steed / and waited till the dawn / without a word the die is cast / across a Rubicon / history's muddy, bloody boots / are ever marching on / now you know.” This appears as a settled peace that no longer fights to answer questions about the ever-elusive fame and notoriety hiding around the next bend. Instead, the craftsman continues to apply his tools of melody and metaphor, with wit and passion.

“Tap Your Heart on the Shoulder,” like “Now You Know,” projects the feel of the troubadour, with the cadence of a slow ride near sunset. The lyrics, too, paint the picture of a horse-mounted observer, depicting this present age.  Mallonee writes, “Ain’t nothing left in Oklahoma / On your right or your left hand / We took God’s good, green earth / and we turned it into sand.”  

Overall, Winnowing comes in at 10 cohesive tracks (just over 43 minutes). It’s a journey full of questions, reflecting on the might-have-beens and the almost-but-not-quites of one of the most prolific songwriting careers that has been all but overlooked. From the haunting, opening track, Dover Beach, to the closing track, Mallonee delivers a fresh collection of tunes while he scrutinizes the cards he’s been dealt, sorting through both mistakes and misfortunes. Closing out the album, he sings “Only so many smiles you can fake…Hey reach over / tap your heart on the shoulder / and see if she’s still awake.” While we’re left with unanswered inquiries—some that may never be rejoined, we’re also left with these ten jewels of honest, though-provoking melodies that cause us to examine our own steps and motives, and in their stripped-down honesty, awaken our hearts from slumber.