Album of the Week, November 30: Blister Soul by Vigilantes of Love
November 30, 2014 Leave a comment
Bill Mallonee got involved with the potent late 80s Athens, GA music scene while pursuing his degree in History at the University of Georgia. He played drums in a number of local bands, eventually spinning off a side project featuring his work on vocals and guitar and accordion playing by Mark Hall. The duo borrowed the New Order song Love Vigilantes and dubbed themselves the Vigilantes of Love. Over time, the duo became Mallonee’s musical focus, gaining two other regulars and becoming a fixture in the Athens live circuit. The group developed a strong roots-rock / Americana sound anchored by Mallonee’s evocative vocals and literate lyrics. With a slightly different lineup for each recording, the group released three solid, critically acclaimed albums on the small Fingerprint and Core labels. Gaining regional attention, they moved to Capricorn and released the powerful Welcome to Struggleville in 1994 adding electric guitar and bass to their original acoustic mix. Building on that sound, Mallonee and crew returned to the studio with producer John Keane and turned out their finest effort.
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Things kick off with the stirring title track, something of a statement of purpose for the album. Mallonee reflects on the pessimism that pervades modern life, empathizing but offering hope anchored in the human spirit. 5 Miles Outside Monroe is an urgent vignette, relating an event on rural Georgia roads. With crackling energy and a driving vocal, it’s a delightful, dark story. Things slow down with Skin, reminiscent of the early VoL sound. A tribute to the sad life of Vincent van Gogh, it’s a touching song, lovingly delivered and features one of Mallonee’s nicest vocals.
Offer is a striking dismantling of greed and materialism, once again carrying just enough underlying optimism to make the diatribe work. Balaam’s Ass blends biblical imagery with a series of elliptical observations, creating an oddly compelling snapshot of life at the end of the 20th Century. Bethlehem Steel adds post-industrial blues to the mix. Mallonee brings back a message of hope with the stirring Tempest, offering a determination to calm the storms, even if the interim is a bit more chaotic. Bolt Action wraps up this middle section with another dark, disjointed story, the vocals and music skittering along and heightening the tension that never quite resolves.
Parting Shot is a quiet conversation about dealing with modern life, anchored by the question “closing statement or parting shot?” That nicely constructed dichotomy frames Mallonee’s observations and metaphors, creating one of the album’s strongest moments. Real Down Town is an early VoL song reconstructed. Frustrated with his lack of access to his early recordings due to corporate shenanigans, Mallonee takes his inital story of coping with abandonment and inserts a nice jab at his old label. It’s a fun song with nice pop energy that benefits from the new twist. Certain Slant of Light is another acoustic number, a beautiful song of hope in dark circumstances. It’s Mallonee’s finest moment, blending his often biblical imagery, his passionate singing, and his underlying humanity into a nice, cohesive package.
Unsuccessful raises the energy again as the band drive through another smart ode to dealing with the difficulties of modern life. It’s jarring after the sweet song that preceeds it, making it even more effective. Things wrap up with an alternate title track that reviews the songs that came before, circling back to the cautious optimism of the opener. It’s a good gambit that makes the album a nice package, showcasing Mallonee’s talents and the work of the tightest, most consistent of the many versions of the VoL.
FURTHER LISTENING: Over the course of a decade, Mallonee and company released a dozen albums with as many lineups on almost as many labels. They frequently seemed to be on the cusp of breaking big, developing a nice mix of alt-country and indie Americana. Signed briefly to Warner Bros., they released the snapshot album V.O.L., a very nice overview of their first five albums with a handful of solid new tracks. Of the original recordings, Welcome to Struggleville, Slow Dark Train and Audible Sigh are the finest, each capturing a different moment in the band’s growth. Mallonee finally gave up the band in 2001 and now records under his own name.