"What's past is prologue," observed William Shakespeare. He had other things in mind than music reviews, but the observation fits the Vigilantes of Love's most recent release, entitled VoL, a compilation album of twelve old songs and four new ones. The compilation does a good job of introducing the band to new listeners, showing not only where the band has been, in personnel and in music, but also where it's going.
The first thing you will notice in looking at the liner notes is that the one constant in VoL over the group's lifetime has been Bill Mallonee, the group's founder, lead singer, and writer. The lineup around him has varied a great deal, including some talented multi-instrumentalists playing a mix of acoustic and electric instruments. The four new songs on this album reflect the group's most recent incarnation as a three-piece band, although drummer Tom Crea has since left the group.
The songs from the first album, Jugular, are "America," "Losing It," and "Who Knows When the Sunrise Will Be." These are slower, acoustic songs, showcasing Bill's engaging and personal lyrical style. The latter two songs treat what are for him familiar themes: real and introspective looks at life's struggles. "America" is an exploration of another familiar theme: the gulf between the idealized depiction of US History that many of us got in school and the reality of life today. "America" begins with a poignant accordion version of "Amazing Grace." I haven't bought the first album yet, but on the basis of these songs, I intend to.
The songs from the second album, Killing Floor, are "Earth Has No Sorrow, Heaven Can't Heal," "River of Love," and "Undertow." "Undertow" is a faster paced tune featuring Billy Holmes's rapid-fire mandolin work and Bill's frenetic, urgent vocals. With the rapid tempo, he often seems to have more words to sing than time to sing them:
The song is still a staple at VoL's live performances. The lyrics again evoke life's struggles but include a strong undercurrent of hope that prevents the song from sliding into cynicism and despair.
VoL's third album, Driving the Nails, is the only album not represented on the compilation, a result of a dispute with Core Records. Bill alludes to the problem in a new version of the song "Real Downtown," which originally appeared on Killing Floor. Though the liner notes quote the original lyrics, the compilation has the remake of the song from the Blister Soul album (see below), with the altered second verse.
The fourth album, Welcome to Struggleville, represented a departure from the band's previous musical style. Bill Mallonee has said in interviews that, musically speaking, Welcome to Struggleville was an anomaly, fitting in with neither what came before nor after. The songs on the compilation, "Glory and the Dream" and "Welcome to Struggleville" feature more straightforward rock and roll and some nice lead guitar work by Newton Carter. The two featured songs were inspired by paintings. The folk art of Howard Finster, with its "tractor paints on plywood/ covered with verse" helped "Glory and the Dream;" while Edward Knepper's Salome with the head of John the Baptist provided the basis for "Welcome to Struggleville." "Glory and the Dream" is another exploration of the gap between ideal and reality:
The most recent of VoL's albums, Blister Soul is represented on the compilation by four songs: "Blister Soul," "Real Downtown," "Skin," and "Tempest." "Skin" ranks, to my taste, among the best lyrics that Bill has written. Starting from a deromanticized account of painter Vincent Van Gogh's life, Bill moves to a consideration of his own life as a believer who is a songwriter:
In addition to representing a step away from the "Struggleville" band's sound, "Blister Soul," "Real Downtown" and "Tempest" give the listener a hint of the band's later evolution into a three-piece band.
Four songs that had not previously been recorded--"And You Drown," "Double Cure," "Hopeless Is As Hopeless Does," and "When I'm Broken (See What Happens)"--fill out the disc. The lyrics to "And You Drown" incorporate another common theme in Bill's writing--the human tendency to hide our struggles and woundedness:
"Double Cure" started out as a slower four-beats-to-the-bar acoustic song (an early demo of the old version is included on the disc as a bonus track) and was transmuted into the soaring form we hear on the compilation, complete with some extra solo-guitar work by John Keane. Bill Mallonee refuses to consider himself more than proficient as a guitarist, but his guitar work on "When I'm Broken" includes one of the most infectious licks I have heard in a long time. Chris Bland's bass playing and background vocals are anything but bland, adding interest to the mix. In "When I'm Broken," Bill mixes reflections on touring with the band to his usual introspection, and "Hopeless" reflects his love and gratitude for his wife Brenda's support.
This is not a post-breakup "career summary" album: VoL has a new album due out on Capricorn/Mercury Records later this spring. This makes the compilation useful as in introduction to VoL, for anyone who has heard the buzz about the band and wants to decide whether or not to spend the money for the new album, or whether to catch their set at Cornerstone '97 this July. If you don't have the money to buy the previous albums, the compilation is a good summary of what VoL has done so far. The only thing missing from VoL are examples of where Bill writes using his ability as a storyteller rather than his gift for introspection: "Eleanore" from Killing Floor and "Vet" from Welcome to Struggleville being two examples.
My recommendation: buy it and enjoy it while you wait for the next VoL album.