Lands & Peoples by Bill Mallonee

lands and people 2by John Ellis

Bill Mallonee is hard to resist. At least for me. And, A.) that caveat is what fuels my coming rant housed in a review; B.) the forthcoming caveat-fueled rant is why I unsuccessfully tried to resist Bill Mallonee’s latest heart-pouring – the aptly titled, as Mallonee records tend to be, Lands & Peoples. My caveat fueled rant woven into another caveat is somewhat of a which-came-first-the-chicken-or-egg quandary, and I run the risk of twisting myself into an existential twizzler if I ponder for too long whether or not I should reverse “A” and “B.” Which is going to be hard for me not to do since Mallonee’s music creates in me an almost irresistible desire to ponder, which, in turn, means that my reviews of one of America’s premier singer/songwriter/troubadours usually end up becoming a very personal affair. That probably doesn’t surprise anyone who has read any of my music reviews. I’ve said it before, and I’m fairly confident that this won’t be the last time I say it; I don’t know how to leave my subjective feelings and thoughts at the door of my music critic office. In other words, if you expect music reviews to be dryly and falsely impersonal, you may as well go ahead and click over to whichever industry slopping rag you frequent most often because it’s about to get real personal up in here.

Outside of The Men They Couldn’t Hang, I think that I’ve written about Mallonee more than any other musician/band[1]. However, based on the number of albums in his canon, my Mallonee review batting average is abysmal, like, well below the Mendoza Line level of abysmal. To be fair, the dude has released, between The Vigilantes of Love and his “solo” stuff[2], almost sixty albums. I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary to review that many albums from one of my favorite musicians. For at least one more time, I shall attempt to entice the readers into engaging AND buying an album from an artist who should be considered a national music treasure. And, I shall write this review with a very large and perturbed chip on my shoulder because way more people should already be listening to Lands & Peoples.

Bill Mallonee’s most recent record is an ode to all of us. Well, an ode to those among us who recognize that ultimately, “it’s where no shovel can touch/ that’s where the real gold lies”[3]. The fool’s gold pushed forward on a daily basis by pop culture distracts many of us from pursuing moments that hold real value. This is where Bill Mallonee not only steps into the void, but is so far ahead of most others who challenge our pop values that he can often seem to be an island unto himself. Ruminating on the grit and grime of real life lived in real places that not only mold experiences but also provide the ornate frame in which we look back in both angst and, more often than not, a resolute joy that transcends self-involvement, Mallonee is our poet. Unfortunately, most of us are unaware of our poet.

The entertainment industry isn’t fickle; it’s sadistic. Fickle implies some sort of irritating, at times, and cute, at other times, innocence. My four year old son can be guilty of irritating innocence. The day is going to come when many of his moments of fickleness will be the stories we laugh about as we try to embarrass him in front of his girlfriend. No, the entertainment industry has zero sense of humor, zero concern for “where the real gold lies,” and zero aesthetic integrity as it cruelly mocks true artists by co-opting their language as they pat themselves on the back with claims of “Record of the Year.” And we let them get away with it. Many people kid themselves about their love for the “indie scene;” the real indie scene gets shunted out of conversations among the authentic, hip taste-makers of false places like Williamsburg. After all, indie cred is only as good as the number of invitations to hip parties that dropping an artist’s name will score you. Or how many Twitter followers will R/T your pithy comment about the #trending indie band. Right? Except, no. Thoughtful artistic virtuoso should sweep away the glittering, shallow gold that is loosely buried and easily found among the hastily dug mine of pop culture. Of course, we all know, as we gild our iTunes account with the same ‘ol same ‘ol, that that will never happen. And it’s our fault[4].

I know, either intimately as friends or by moving through their orbit, many artists – musicians, visual, and filmmakers/theatre artists – that create thoughtful, interesting art, but who flounder in their inability to make inroads even with their friends. Making art is a risky economic proposition, and that makes it a risky existential proposition, too. For those artists, family reunions, high school reunions, and, hell, *fill-in-the-blank* reunions are exercises in walking the fine line between flat-out lying about their resume and selectively using words from their resume to paint the most flattering picture possible in front of the family member or old high school buddy who defines success in pesky, tangible economic terms. The thing is, Bill Mallonee doesn’t need to use his prodigious wordsmith talents in the service of massaging his resume – Paste Magazine named him as one of the greatest living songwriters, he’s sung with Emmylou Harris, been produced by Peter Buck, and has earned the aesthetic esteem of almost everyone who has taken the time to listen to him. But I don’t think all those who declare their aesthetic esteem of Bill Mallonee are buying his records, and that kinda pisses me off.

lands and people 1Lands & Peoples is less Dylan and more Pete Seeger combined with the wide-open wanderings of the Sons of the Pioneers. Not that the many Dylan comparisons aren’t apt, because they are; it’s just that when I sink into the twisting and ebbing stories of Mallonee’s latest, the music resonates with me, both personally and communally, in gritty, sweat stained, open aired breeze way that reminds me more of my mechanic grandfather with his perpetual grease covered, loving, and generous hard-working hands and less of my revolutionary friends who engage the world in needed protests. It’s music that speaks to and for all and belongs to all, but, unfortunately, music that is heard by few. I want to change that, but short of emptying my kid’s college accounts and buying copies of Lands & Peoples to distribute to friends and strangers alike, I am at a loss of how to get more people engaged with one of our greatest living artists.

I mean, I’ve tried. I think. I don’t stand idly by while friends and acquaintances trumpet less worthy musicians; I encourage, cajole, and, at times, flat out scream the praises of Bill Mallonee[5]. Take Lands & Peoples, which is appropriate since this is supposed to be a review of that album. And that album is one that belongs in your most frequently played play list.

In the relatively short time that I’ve been listening to it, Lands & Peoples has become my favorite Mallonee album that doesn’t have the name Vigilantes of Love on it. A few years ago, he and his wife, Muriah Rose, who beautifully provides the harmony vocals and a variety of keyboard instruments to the album, moved from Mallonee’s Deep South homeland into the high desert of New Mexico, and completed the marriage of alt-country with the cowboy troubadour. Lands & Peoples is possibly the greatest example of Americana that has been produced in the last twenty years; and I don’t say that lightly. Musically, the rawness of Amber Waves is present, but with L&P Mallonee demonstrates that the desert’s harsh tentativeness and simultaneously bleak yet soothing stillness has been integrated into his musical voice. This was evident on last year’s Winnowing, a wonderful record that is oft played in my house, but L&P has found the sweetly grooved spot in Mallonee’s music recliner. His guitar playing, without overwhelming his incomparable skills as a lyricist, pleasantly seers the listener into a state of contemplation that allows Mallonee’s lyrics a free and loping stroll into the listener’s psyche. And it’s those lyrics that push Lands & Peoples out of the land of great and into the stratosphere of greatest.

Bill Mallonee has the gift of being able to translate the common experiences that we all have – loss, confusion, joy, relationship, et al. – into tightly woven songs that use the full force of words to help create a catharsis for the listener. I could write interpretative essays on all twelve of L&P’s tracks, but, for me, one song stands out as the possible representative of Mallonee’s songwriting soul. In the wanderlust lament “Steering Wheel Is a Prayer Wheel,” Mallonee prophesies, “There’s only so much you can freight on your heart’s shaky scaffold/ And the steering wheel is a prayer wheel on the open road.” Mallonee has been peddling, an unfortunate term, his art on the road for years. It often seems as if he’s taken not only his own fair share of life’s swings, but that he’s generously taken a little bit of the swings intended for many of the rest of us. His songs are built on the deepening scars, triumphs paid for, and lessons integrated into life that fall far short of adequately recognizing the innate value of Bill Mallonee’s music. The positive returns that grace Bill Mallonee are woefully incommensurate with the level of his gift and his giving of that gift to us.

At the writing of this review, Bill Mallonee is hawking a Fender Twin Amp that he’s used on the majority of his recordings over the last twenty years. That is not just unfortunate; that is shameful. The vast majority of people in this country use resources, time and money, on entertainment options. That’s a good thing. However, the avenues with which all those resources are being spent is most often not a good thing. For example, the fact that one of the greatest living songwriters and musicians is forced to sell his equipment in order to keep going is frustratingly not a good thing. With Lands & Peoples, Mallonee has released as excellent an offering in the Americana genre as can be found. People should be buying his music, not his Fender Twin Amp.

And with that, you can buy Lands & Peoples here.


[1] Grace & Tony and Drew Gibson are up there, too.

[2] Many of his VoL bandmates can be heard on his “solo stuff.”

[3] Track 7: “Northern Lights and Southern Cross”

[4] Well, I mean, it’s not my fault. And it may not be yours. It’s somebody’s fault, though; I’m willing to bet that a good sized percentage of people who read this review should accept some of the blame.

[5] And others.

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