The Phantom Tollbooth
October 1999 Pick of the Month

'Cross the Big Pond (US)
Free For Good (UK)
 Artist: Vigilantes of Love
 Label:Indie (US)/A Startled Chameleon (UK)
 Length: 8 songs / 34:34 minutes (US)/7 tracks / 31:00 minutes

Vigitarians, Vigilantes of Love fans, are a spoiled rotten bunch. To date the critically acclaimed band Vigilantes of Love have released one album per year for this entire decade; sometimes two! With now eleven albums to date (not counting the fan-club only release My Year in Review), the Vigilantes of Love now have nearly as many albums as their better-known, fellow Athens, Georgians, R.E.M., and they did it in half the time. 'Cross the Big Pond may then be considered their twelfth official album, and their second this year arriving at more or less the same time as Audible Sigh.

These two new albums have only a bit in common. Both start off with "Goes Without Saying" (although the ...Pond version goes by an alternate title "Cloth of Life"), and both include versions of one of the rowdiest folk-rockers since "Undertow" called "She Walks on Roses."  However, these two songs were recorded under two totally different circumstances, rendering them quite unique on each release. The story goes that while the Vigilantes were on tour in the United Kingdom last year, they found four free days between booked gigs. Thanks to a friend with a friend who had a farmhouse studio in Gloucestershire, the boys from the band moved in and unpacked a few songs for posterity. The whole thing was a lark, never intended for mass release, but gratefully the band reconsidered. The result is proof that the Vigilantes noodling around in the studio can cook up better crafted songs than a host of other bands with bigger studio budgets.

Each of the eight offerings are raw and rough, without being at all painful. In contrast to the slickly and perfectly produced material on Audible Sigh, the ...Pond songs are loose enough to sound as spontaneous as their legendary live shows, while also remaining tight enough to be accessible. Best of all, Mallonee has dragged out a few songs like "In the Box" and especially "Back to Its Source," which deserve to be dusted off and taken out of the closet. And the two ballads "Where My Seed Might Find Purchase" and the uncredited "My Hearts Electric (On to Bethlehem)" may have first appeared on My Life In Review, but these  fuller versions have a greater chance of getting heard.

For those who can't get enough of Kenny Hutson's remarkable multi-instrument talents, he is all over this album like a well-fitting suit. One of the best skeletal tunes in the bunch is "Go and Ask Her," which marries a hopeful tale of an abused woman with a tender tune peppered by Hutson's merry mandolin:

       Hard line taken every path you crossed
       What was never found maybe was never lost
       You long ago stropped thinking about what it cost...
       To live in this skin...
       And all those men you ran out on you
       When they climbed your mountain and had their view
       Took along the treasures but left you
       With a mine full of nothing
       Go and ask're innocent when you dream

Main man Bill Mallonee has always been a Song-On Machine as the sheer volume of his work boldly attests, and he considers most of his songs a cheaper form of personal therapy than you get down at the local shrink. Although his songs are deeply personal as a result, they also bear universal testimony to any commoner's experience. 'Cross the Big Pond  finds Mallonee scribbling down more notes about everything from the trials of being on the road and away from his family to the universal nature of sin and our need for a Savior. Coupled with such exceptional and intimate playing, Reformation theology never sounded so good.

       Yeah you love me to the finest hour
       And then through thick and thin
       On such wreckage and ruin
       Your spirit did descend
       Yeah one eye for the savior, the other for a thief
       It was the bread of tears, it was the meal of grief.
           ("Back to Its Source")

As an added bonus, the CD sleeve comes with song lyrics, brief song comments, and a note from Mallonee, as well as some excellent grainy black and white photos of the band with or without instruments in hand, and a rocky seashore.

'Cross the Big Pond may only bear eight songs and a smidgen over thirty-four minutes of music. Call it a long EP or just a short album if you want, but don't discount it. For your money, it is as worthy a release  as  Audible Sigh, and likely to throw many fans into a true tizzy of delight. This rare and refreshingly intimate view of the Vigilantes is the closest thing to having them play in your living room yet. And although that would be nice, it's not likely, so here's your virtual golden opportunity.

Steven S. Baldwin   9/11/99

More or less equivalent to the US released 'Cross the Big Pond, Free for Good differs in terms of packaging and hidden track; the CD comes encased in a firmer, white card case which these eyes prefer to the brown packaging of the US release, and in place of "On to Bethlehem" comes a short fade-out version of "She Walks on Roses."

At the Greenbelt festival this year, the Vigilantes performed two main sets. The first--a loud, electric, and mainstage--carried many of the hallmarks of the band's Audible Sigh album, but their second was a low-key acoustic affair in a more intimate setting. And it is that latter side of the band that this recording represents. There is some overlap with Audible Sigh in terms of the track listing, but the whole project has a very loose feel to it.

Vigilantes of Love fans have been spoiled for choice over the last couple of months with two major and easily available new releases. The edges are a little ragged, but this addition to the collection of any fan will serve as a reminder of those times when the band breaks out the acoustics and serves up an intimate portrait of life on the road.

James Stewart 9/21/99

The other 1999 Vigilantes of Love release, Audible Sigh also reviewed here.