The Phantom Tollbooth
1999 Pick of the Year
September 1999 Pick of the Month

Audible Sigh (Pre-release version)
Artist: Vigilantes of Love
Label: TrueTunes
Time: 13 tracks/52:04 minutes

Editor's Note: According to our recent interview with Bill Mallonee, if you bid on a rare copy of this pre-release CD now, you are, "No friend of the band." But we couldn't resist a peak at this preview version of Vigilantes of Love's latest album, shipped to radio stations just before the label went out of business. The full release of the album, with some songs replaced by new material, won't happen until early next year, but a limited pressing of the current revision produced in July made this CD less inaudible.

The newest offering from the Vigilantes of Love will please most fans and undoubtedly create some new ones. Bill Mallonee and his cohorts have put together, for better or worse, another album that clearly displays the band for who they are and what they believe. Those who enjoyed To the Roof of the Sky will find plenty to like here: more of Mallonee's thoughtfully constructed lyrics, more lap steel and mandolin from Kenny Hutson, more Jacob Bradley guitar work with Emmylou Harris' drummer Brady Blade sitting in on the sessions. (The newest Vigilante, Keven Heuer, now playing drums for the band.)

Production work is performed masterfully by Buddy Miller, who manages to balance and enhance the music without making it too slick. This album sounds less forced than those in the past, more like the live Vigilantes show.

Like To the Roof of the Sky, this is a sunnier collection than some of the darker albums of yore (Slow Dark Train and Blister Soul leap immediately to mind as examples); whether this is a good or a bad thing is entirely up to the individual. The most somber offering is "Resplendent," which tells the sad tale of a man who loses his wife and child within a year during the Dust Bowl years:

I remember the dark clouds
Rain and dust for days on end
Blew all the earth out to California
Just left us here with the wind....

Lost my firstborn that winter
My wife on the first day of spring
So I poured my sweat to the earth
See what that harvest would bring.

None of the songs immediately presents itself as The radio single, though arguments could be made for "Extreme North of the Compass" and "She Walks on Roses."  Some of the most striking lyrics are found in "Any Side of Anywhere," where Mallonee gets a bit autobiographical:
This stage is a confessional
So you kneel and then begin
Yeah, you cross yourself those three times
And step into this skin.
Mallonee shows a bit more of his dark side lyrically, if not musically, in "Could Be a Lot Worse":
A kiss for the miles to drive
A prayer for when it rains
One shot of perspective
A couple more to kill the pain

When all the best metaphors
Are hidden too close to home
When all the best metaphors
Are bleeding from your bones.

All in all, it's a pleasing album: nice variation in lyric themes, wide divergence in tempos ("Resplendent" is quite slow; "She Walks on Roses" and "Extreme North of the Compass" are near-manic), and a variety of accent instrumentation. Unfortunately, it's engaging without being captivating. There's a sense that it doesn't quite realize its full potential. Audible Sigh isn't a disappointment, it just leaves you wishing for more of Mallonee's signature grit. Then again, with a revamped version coming out in early 2000, this could end up being the Vigilantes' best work yet.

Lisa Reid (8/11/99)

The brilliant photo on the album cover depicts an old train that, although surprisingly not derailed, lies motionless on its side half in the mud. This photo is the perfect metaphor for the band that has doggedly stayed on the tracks despite major label woes that would try to upturn them. They may have been ditched twice now by record labels, but they are far from clobbered yet.

In this light and given that front-man Bill Mallonee admits to mood swings and depressive bouts, Audible Sigh is the happiest sounding set of songs the band has released to date. Nearly as good as their finest moments this decade, their eleventh official album (counting 'Cross the Big Pond) is comfortably set in the camp of their previous material. Just combine the lush alt-country ramblings of 1998's To the Roof of the Sky with the rockier attitude of 1997's Slow Dark Train, and the logical conclusion is Audible Sigh  What it lacks in surprises in sound and content, it makes up for in the kind of diverse musicianship and solidly written songs fans have come to expect.

Plus, the guest musicians and vocalists (Emmylou Harris, her drummer Brady Blade, Phil Madeira, Tammy Rogers, and Julie and Buddy Miller) read like a who's who of noteworthy, contemporary, countryish artists, and their contributions here befit their stature without overly altering the band's signature sound. The continued consistency of Mallonee's songwriting craft on his distinguished album releases begs the question: will hell really freeze over before he writes a bad song?

If Audible Sigh has a weakness in its overall atmosphere, it is the lack of more melancholy tunes to balance the upbeat ones--notwithstanding the few included here like stand-out track "Resplendent." Buddy Miller's admirable, but slick, production also sanitizes the bands grittier sheen in spots, resulting in some loss of the intimacy and spontaneity that characterizes the band's live shows. Regardless, Mallonee's always artful metaphors still run thick with reflection and wisdom, the music still cranks while rocking and cuts will weeping, and God is ultimately honored by this fetching collection. With songs this solid, Mallonee's train will continue rattling along a bit beaten by not busted for some time to come.

Hearty thanks go to the band, Buddy Miller, and True Tunes  for releasing a limited number of prerelease Cds. Get yours if there are any left, and plan on picking up the expected new and improved version in 2000.

Steven S. Baldwin   9/11/99

The other 1999 Vigilantes of Love release, 'Cross the Big Pond is also reviewed here.