Music » Music Feature

Waiting to exhale

Vigilantes of Love breathe an Audible Sigh


In 1990, Bill Mallonee quit his day job and formed Vigilantes of Love as an outlet for the self-described "bedroom songs" he had been writing while working as a teacher and psychiatric counselor in Athens. Nearly 10 years and several hundred gigs later he's still touring out of the back of a van, writing poignant folk-rock songs and squeezing a record or two out every year. And while that same weathered van is getting gassed up for yet another trek across America, this time in support of the band's new release Audible Sigh, things appear to finally be paying off. With strong preliminary U.S. and European sales figures, regular AAA radio play and a No. 5 spot on Billboard's "Top Internet Album Sales" chart, Audible Sigh might just be the breakout release of the band's career. The past 10 years have been a roller coaster ride for Mallonee and his band Vigilantes of Love. Numerous label misfortunes and personnel changes have taken their toll on the group, though you'd never realize it in listening to Mallonee reminisce about his career. "I've been lucky," he says. "I get to write my own songs and spill my guts on stage every night to people who are willing to pay money to hear what I have to say ... that's quite a concept!"

After two independent releases and two years of local Athens bar gigs, Mallonee's "concept" caught the attention of Capricorn Records, who signed the group in 1992 and released three albums, including the well-received Welcome to Struggleville and Blister Soul. After the Capricorn deal ended in 1997, VOL put out four albums independently, including '98's cathartic and biographical To the Roof of the Sky, which Mallonee describes as "a record of how life and grace look after all the illusionary safety nets fall away."

But while the grassroots response to the independent releases far exceeded the band's expectations, Mallonee is quick to note, "There are just some places you can't get to on your own. Radio was hard to crack because somehow you weren't legit if you didn't have a label promoting your album."

In late '98, the missing piece of the puzzle seemed to fall into place when the band signed to Pioneer Music Group, a newly formed division of Pioneer Electronics. But just weeks before the release of their first Pioneer album, the label unexpectedly closed its doors, leaving the CD in a state of limbo.

"We were disappointed when we didn't have a record company deal to bank on any longer," Mallonee says, "but we do this because we love the music and we love playing together. So you either do something because you love it and it's your lifeblood or you pout and mope about the big bad record company. And to me, that's counterproductive. I mean no one owes me a living and life is full of the unexpected. No doubt, the music business will make you cold and cynical if you do it for the wrong reasons, so I try and keep my expectations low and enjoy the present and the gifts God puts in front of me."

Shortly after the Pioneer deal fell through, the band suffered yet another setback when mandolin, pedal steel and lead guitar player Kenny Hutson decided to quit the group. "When the Pioneer deal went south, the prospect of getting back in a van for 180 days was just too much for Kenny," Mallonee says. "We'll miss him as a person and as a musician. We built part of our sound around him the past couple of years but I think we've adjusted well in his absence and to me there has always been something special about a three piece on stage just going for it every night."

Just back from a two-week stint in the U.K. and currently touring the states, the band -- now consisting of Mallonee (guitar and vocals), Jake Bradley (bass) and Kevin Heuer (drums) -- has been reinvigorated by the new Audible Sigh album, comprised in part of material from their unreleased Pioneer disc and put out by Compass Records, who signed the band in March.

"Compass really understands who we are," Mallonee says, "and has the resources to make things happen. When we were initially shopping it, we had several major labels telling us that they loved it -- it was the kind of stuff they were listening to when they were off work. But if they couldn't sell 250,000 copies of it then they couldn't sign it right now. And that was actually encouraging to hear because it confirmed to us that somebody thought we could sell 249,000 copies."

Behind Buddy Miller's polished production, Audible Sigh compiles nearly two years of material, dating back to a very dark point in the band's career. Themes range from melancholy and introspective ("Now as the Train Pulls Away," "Black Cloud O'er Me") to hopeful and forward thinking ("Could Be a Lot Worse," "It's Not Bothering Me"). The album plays like a biographical journey through the life of a struggling group, with all the heartache and happiness that comes along the way.

These days, Mallonee is optimistic about the future. "I'd like to think the reason why Vigilantes is still going strong is the same reason why people like Springsteen and Petty and Dylan still have careers. Those are artists with something to say. They look at the human condition, the American condition, and they write about it articulately and from a personalized perspective."

With those words, Mallonee encapsulates his own career. The Vigilantes of Love typify passionate and edgy folk-rock Americana. With catchy hooks and moving melodies intertwining a poetic commentary on life, love and spirituality, Audible Sigh is ample evidence of a powerful group still in its prime.

Add a comment