Singer-songwriter Bill Mallonee has been slogging it out with the oft-changing personnel of his band, Vigilantes of Love, for a decade now, the brass ring always just out of his grasp. Critically acclaimed for his brand of literate, heart-on-his-sleeve songs of life, love, struggle, and remorse, Mallonee has courted a following from the progressive side of the contemporary Christian music audience. He's recorded on mainstream labels and pursued success on the merits of the earthy sensibility of his band's rootsy folk and rock and roll.

With "Audible Sigh," his latest out on Compass Records, Mallonee has started to get the kind of notice that sounds like success. "Compelling, insightful, this group continues to probe through Americana rock & roll proving that sometimes the only story worth telling is that of the journey," wrote RollingStone. "Dylan-tinged vocal and introspective lyrics that spin out big-picture stories imbued with chilling small details," said Billboard. "It's the demolition derby view of rock and roll," says Mallonee for his part. "It's never the best-looking car, it's just the one that finishes the race. We're still on the track, apparently."

Some Christian fans, however, have difficulty understanding how a believer can sing about a "Black Cloud O'er Me" and "Hard Luck & Heart Attack." "I suppose that's so," admits Mallonee on a cell phone, reached during a recent tour, "but I think there's still that thread of redemptive hope running underneath it, but you may have to dig a little to find it. You know, the good news doesn't make any sense unless you know how bad the bad news is."

In "Could Be a Lot Worse," on his thrice reshaped "Sigh," Mallonee writes, "Faith, she's a whistling train...running hard in the dark. Hope is like a thing untamed...gonna lay to waste your heart. Love is a little bit of God...there for all to know. Love is the everlasting arms...that never let you go."

Mallonee speaks of his own faith as "a joyous little journey." Having moved uncomfortably through evangelical circles, he has begun to explore the religion of his childhood. "I was born into Roman Catholicism and raised and nurtured through it. I began a study after several friends suggested that I take a look at what it is that was missing for me. Three fifths of my library over the years has been made up of godly men and women who were Catholics, whether it was Flannery O'Connor, Mother Teresa, or [Thomas] Merton or [Walker] Percy, you name it. These people hold the faith with intellectual credibility, so I just figured it was worth checking out."

Having struggled since to create his art on his own terms while beating out a living on the road, it's not surprising that the first word Mallonee sings on the record is "failure." Since the album was recorded, they have again lost their second guitarist, Kenny Hutson. But, by now, Mallonee has learned to take personnel changes as opportunities. "We've kind of transformed ourselves into a ragged garage-y three-piece band, that has a lot more of that college [radio] piss and venom about it, I suppose," he explains.

With an electric amp on his acoustic setup, Mallonee is trying out "a real sloshy and kind of grindy sounding, very Neil Young or Grant Lee Buffalo sounding, but without the obnoxious amounts of stage volume," contrasting the emotion of his new sound, which includes Jake Bradley's electric 12-string and mandolin, with "just the two guitars, bass, and drums, and a cloud-of-dust thing that we'd been doing for two years."

VoL has signed to do two more records for Compass, and there's a solo album for Bill Mallonee expected, too. But don't expect sermons or Scripture turned to song from Vigilantes of Love. You're more likely to hear the stories of life's saddest realities and the simple assertion that "Earth has no sorrow, Heaven can't heal."

"I'm not trying to sell anyone on my position, or to convert anyone," shares Mallonee as we're signing off. "If that happens that's great, and we are prepared to name the hope that sustains us. What it does is allow me to affirm the significance of life and love in all sorts of little corners of the earth. Doing rock and roll, which has become such a cult of celebrity these days, it allows me to relax and affirm that there is no little place or little people. I think it comes out in the music, it affirms life and love and the little things."

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