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Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Perfumed Letter

  • reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Aug
  • COMMENTS
Perfumed Letter
Sounds like … alternative folk rock similar to Bob Dylan, Bruce Cockburn, and Mark Heard with touches of Beach Boys influenced artists like Terry Scott Taylor and Randy StonehillAt a glance … Mallonee's latest solo offering is enjoyably crafted alternative folk rock, but it might be a little too cryptic for its own good

This is the national solo debut from Bill Mallonee, though people familiar with his name will scratch their heads over the occasion. An extremely prolific songwriter from Athens, Georgia, he fronted Vigilantes of Love since their debut in 1990, writing most all of the music for the 13 albums released in 12 years time (including two previous solo projects). His work has generated acclaim from both Christian and mainstream markets, though the music never found as wide an audience as it should. Mallonee was the only constant to a band notorious for its ever-changing lineup, yet 3 of the 5 instrumentalists credited on Perfumed Letter were members of VoL at one time or another. The liner notes credit the musicians as Bill Mallonee and The Tiny Silver Hearts.

The decision to credit this as a solo album probably stems from the slight departure in sound. VoL has historically been a roots rock band in the vein of Bruce Cockburn, Mark Heard, and Bob Dylan. Perfumed Letter generally remains true to that style while adding vintage keyboard sounds such as Moog synthesizer, Clavinova, and Mellotron. As a result, there's a little more of an arty/alternative rock sound here than on previous albums, often recalling the great Christian artists influenced by the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds.

That influence comes through most clearly on "2 Become 1," a poetic tribute to love and marriage. "She's So Liquid" easily recalls the work of Randy Stonehill and Terry Scott Taylor. Meanwhile, the maudlin "Shirts & Skins" recalls early Radiohead, just as the press bio suggests. "That Little Something" is classic VoL with a brief instrumental fill that evokes Keith Moon's drumming with The Who.

With alternative folk rock this catchy, one wonders why Mallonee's music hasn't caught on with more listeners. I would guess part of the reason is same thing that endears him to his fans—his penchant for poetry. The lyrics on Perfumed Letter are simultaneously evocative and cryptic. No doubt that average listeners will scratch their heads over "She's So Liquid" and the dreamy title track. It's an album of love songs, delving into the pain and pleasure of relationships.

The tricky part is figuring out whether they're about the earthly or the spiritual kind—perhaps both—with all the biblical references thrown in. Take for example "Crescent Moon," a love song that treats romance with sacredness: "Much too easily hurt/Life is coming to grips with what you're worth/When God says one thing but your heart says another." There's much religious imagery in "Wintergreen," making it something of an interpersonal confessional: "I got a heart of stone/Everybody's got a stain glass soul/I've been sleeping at Gethsemane/Got Mother Mary and a Rosary/You had secrets and I had baggage/Together we decided to unpack it/Dreamed a dream, now you're laughing at it/You're just a girl in a leather jacket."

Mallonee's other songs are similarly left open to interpretation. "Life on Other Planets" seems to be about faith and putting other things above God in our lives: "Pull me up, God/I don't know why I'm lame/I am drowning in a sadness I can't hardly name/Easily swayed by the power of suggestion/It's always hard getting past those first impressions." The alternative rocker "After All You've Done For Me" could be about clinging to faith in the most desperate of crises: "To live inside these ruins where you move without a sound/To live inside this skin again and die outside your town/To break forth into sonnets, oh Lord, keep me coming back/Oh, the stories that you tell your head to keep your heart intact." And "Silver Transparent" suggests buried pain brought into the open: "Maybe I've said too much too soon/Sometimes God opens up the deepest of wounds."

Mallonee's Christian faith has been more overt on past projects, but it's a bit more veiled in this one. It's frustrating when some lyrics are too perplexing for their own good. So while I can recommend Perfumed Letter for its great alternative folk rock sound, it's not for everyone. You'll have to decide for yourself whether you prefer artistic expression that is clearer in its meaning, or more cryptic. This project tends to lean more to the latter.


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