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Struggleville Slugger 

Athens singer/songwriter steps up "solo' for his 14th album

Bill Mallonee unlocks his rolling dust-bowl of a van in the parking lot of Nuci's Space rehearsal studio in Athens. As he begins the load-in to rehearse with the newest version of his oft-changing backing band, he stops and laughs.

"You know, I bet Nick Purdy probably doesn't remember this," Mallonee says of the president of his Atlanta-based label, Paste Records. "One night about 12 years ago, I played at the Downstairs Cafe here in Athens. Nick was a student at the University and he came up to me and said, 'I'm gonna have a record label one day and I'd like to sign you.'"

Mallonee has heard plenty of starry-eyed promises since that now-fortuitous meeting with then-sophomore Purdy. As the leader and focus of the internationally touring Americana/roots-rock/folk band Vigilantes of Love, the unfailingly good-natured singer/songwriter has recorded for more indie and major labels than he has time or patience to discuss.

Perfumed Letter, his newly released 14th album, is the first commercially distributed release from Paste (which also operates a record-store website and an Americana magazine), as well as the first to be credited solely to Bill Mallonee. He retired the Vigilantes moniker over a year ago.

"I'm optimistic about this new record," Mallonee says, "I really am."

As a sort of determined punctuation, he slams the back door of the van shut, revealing a Georgia tag with the word "Struggleville" neatly stickered over the actual Clarke County decal. The sticker is a winking reference to VOL's 1994 top 10 adult-alternative radio hit, "Welcome to Struggleville."

Yet, while toiling in his own Struggleville -- a netherworld located somewhere between critics' darling status and mainstream obscurity -- Mallonee has good reason to be excited. In addition to an aggressive marketing campaign for the debut release, Paste recently bought his impressive back catalog to sell from their online store. His two previous projects, Fetal Position and Locket Full of Moonlight, were recorded specifically for the burgeoning company, but got released via Internet only.

"They came to me and said, 'Let's just try this and see what happens. Most of the fans are Internet connected.' We sorta waded into the shallow end a little bit and it worked."

Mallonee, a prolific writer who routinely turns out 50 to 100 songs a year, says he enjoys the productive process.

"They really got behind me and it gave me the right to sort of work for three months, write a batch of songs, then record them, then do another one," he says while opening a battered guitar case covered with stickers from around the world. "The whole idea that a band can put out an album and then milk it for three or four years is just insane for someone who loves to write songs. I want to get stuff out and heard as soon as possible. Otherwise why bother?"

As he unpacks six vintage Rickenbacker, Fender and Gibson guitars -- homages to his love of classic British and American music of the '60s -- Mallonee says, "I kinda got into the back door of rock 'n' roll and Americana through Bob Dylan and Neil Young." When Mallonee moved to Athens from North Carolina in the mid-'80s, he was "just a punk drummer." He enjoyed playing in several local bands, but when he began to play guitar, "everything came into focus."

In early '90s Athens, R.E.M. had long-since made its mark and were often away on tour, Widespread Panic was attracting national attention and a spate of aggressive anti-jangle, anti-jam bands ruled the local scene. Devout Christian Mallonee's spirited, often Spirit-filled, punk-folk rapidly found an audience as an alternative to the abrasive and boiling rage.

Hiding behind the band name Vigilantes of Love, the former teacher began to gig, record and release a hefty amount of material, initially on homemade cassettes. By the time Atlanta-based Sky Records, in conjunction with Christian label Fingerprint, issued Killing Floor in 1992, several national secular labels were engaged in polite bidding wars for the "band," which always featured a revolving door cast of bassists and drummers.

So many majors courted Mallonee and company that he admits he can't even remember them all. "Oh, it was every one you've ever heard of and some ya haven't. [But they offered] a string of promises that were generally never delivered. No matter what you think you'll get, or where [the labels] will take you, it's generally the lower road. So we just stayed on the road and played. Anywhere people would listen."

The road was VOL's bread and butter for as long as the musicians could stand it. "We played over 120 gigs each year, for years," Mallonee says, shaking his tossled mane of hair. "Word-of-mouth was how we survived, really. It's how we sold records. But it just got to a point where we couldn't get in the van anymore."

The strain of touring and flagging label support took its toll on a string of musicians along the way. "There's been a lot of people who really helped make the Vigilantes of Love what we were. Fine, fine players. But you can't tour as hard as we did unless you are really dedicated, or crazy. Or both."

The running joke for years at Vigilantes of Love shows was, "Who's gonna show up this time?"

"That's really how it was," says Jacob Bradley, bassist and guitarist with VOL and Mallonee for over five years. "It'd be like, 'You play guitar? Come on over.'"

These days, Mallonee hands out set lists to the three musicians who back him as the Tiny Purple Hearts. "Even though Jake is still in the band, or in my band again, I feel like this is a very different animal," he says. "We are still getting a feeling of what the songs are going to sound like with a full band playing them. I think it will rock. The record does feel kinda soft in a way. But in a good way."

When the band blasts through the new material at the Nuci's Space rehearsal, all the soft edges of the Perfumed Letter songs immediately smell of muscular pop-rock. Gone are the flowery Moog flourishes that recall bits of Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles. Mallonee and company plow through even the slower songs with the jangling glee of their sunniest recent albums, Audible Sigh and Summershine.

"People may be surprised by this stuff," he says. "It's not an Americana record, it doesn't have a lot of folk on it, but at the same time, you can draw a line from it back to all the music that I grew up listening to: psychedelic, folk and West Coast pop. But to me, it all stems from the same thing."

Mallonee rocks the often-somber new tunes with the big-grin abandon of a man who makes living in Struggleville seem like Easy Street.

"At the end of the day, I'm just happy to have a soap box to stand on," he says as the practice winds to a close. "And an audience to listen to us."

lee.smith@creativeloafing.com

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