Album Review :
Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers - Lands & Peoples
If you’ve not heard of Bill Mallonee, let me introduce you: He’s an musician who has fronted a band, Vigilantes of Love, for 20 plus years. He has compiled nearly 60 albums in total, each with their own unique voice and purpose. His music carries a weight that is not often present in much of the music today. He’s an artist who has the particular ability to stand outside humanity and then observe and report what he sees, and perhaps there is no clearer picture given to us than this new release, Lands and Peoples. There are subtle examinations here that will likely strike a cord somewhere within the deepest recesses of the heart of any listener. It touches on sin, redemption, loneliness, poverty and the folks that get left out in the margins of life.
Musically, this record follows a similar path of the previous two, Winnowing (2014) and Delerosa (2013), it’s a stripped down, do-it-yourself kind of thing. Although a full band sound, it still manages to maintain a warm, back porch feel, something quite different from previous pieces such as The Power and the Glory (2011) or Amber Waves (2012), which are more straight ahead rock records. Bill himself plays nearly 15 different instruments on this record, with his lone accompaniment being his wife, Muriah Rose, who plays keyboards and provides the hauntingly beautiful background vocals. Bill’s voice has a certain Dylan-esque quality, although for me, it’s wholly unique among the Americana world.
That voice is immediately on display with the opener “At Least for a Little While.” Gentle guitars harmonically intermingle their way through the intro. Then Bill’s voice takes over to tell the tale that seems to be about someone who can quite find a place to settle. Perhaps just lost or unable to find their way in life. I would have to say that many of the tunes on this record bring a dark, somber vibe. However, it’s all filtered through a world view that leaves the door open for hope and a time for redemption. It may be found in a little phrase slipped in here and there, or maybe just the mood of a song that brings about the notion that love will indeed have the final say.
“Steering Wheel is a Prayer Wheel” is one of my favorites. A rambling tune that tells the story of a weary, lonely traveling that keeps finding his way in and out of trouble. For me the title of the tune, kind of says it all; just like the steering wheel guides the vehicle traveling down the long highways, a prayer in many ways can do the same in a more spiritual fashion. Another stand out track for me is “Sangre De Cristos.” It’s influenced largely by the place Bill now calls home. Living in the Sange de Cristos mountain range has certainly had a huge impact on is approach to his newer records, he uses the phrase “beautiful and mystical” in describing them.
The title track is a lovely tune that so elegantly describes that observation of America from a distance, not condemning, just observing. “The sweat with every step to build a life that’s true/Tethered to some prayers and maybe a hymn or two/Some things you count as treasure and some you just let lie/All the lands & peoples stretching far & wide.” Other tracks like “Swing it Joe” almost has the flavor of an old folk story. He was a “hero walking straight outta the past/Just like Jesus….built to last.”
I love the guitar harmonies in “Hope the Kids Make It Out.” A tune that I would say is one of the more rockin’ tracks on this record. The finale, “It All Turns to Dust,” is a wonderfully sad ballad, with perfect guitar chimes amidst the overall dark mood that just works so well. The song describes the fight that one has to often go through in life, and things don’t always end happily ever after as long as we are still down here. It’s a song of struggle, told with a direct innocence.
Overall: This record spills out lyrical pictures of the many sights and sounds of this nation’s past and present. As with many of Bill Mallonee’s records, he is able to somehow get points across without pointing a finger, but by simply allowing us to see a clearer picture of ourselves. The guitars in this work speak volumes, giving us the opportunity to lament our own struggles and battles that life carries with it. There is a radiance about his songs that can reach your soul even if you have no idea what the actual story is behind the tune. He’s simply one of the greatest song writers of this generation.
RIYL: Son Volt, Bob Dylan, Neal Young, Vigilantes of Love