Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hear the Desert Whispering on Bill Mallonee's Winnowing

22 LPs.

12 Full-length “collections,” most of which include previously unreleased songs, demos, alternate takes, or concert recordings.

6 live LPs.

25 EPs.

Add in singles, DVDs, and 40 months of Billtunes material, and Bill Mallonee has over 100 official releases to his credit going in to Winnowing, which is his 23rd full-length studio album in the 24 years since Jugular. Oh, and they’re all great.

Scene set.

Let us begin.

Thematically, Bill has described Winnowing as an “Autumnal” record, and meditations on loss, scarcity, and desert existence abound. “Dover Beach,” and “Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes,” both early contenders for title track, lay these themes right out on the table. As Bill often says in interviews, the songs are a way to conjure up some “nomenclature” for the inner landscape, and landscape as such plays a lead role in these songs and throughout the album. On “Dover Beach,” the loneliness of a cold beach reveals a heart broken from doors never opened and a home never found, while a fruitless desert farm provides a setting for contemplating death on “Hall of Mirrors/Room Full of Woes.” In between, the album stops in at various desert locations, full of beat-up trucks, horses and wagons, hotel bars and roadside diners, a desert wind whispering through them all.

Musically, the album is right in step with Bill’s last four full-length releases; that is to say, this is mostly a collection of shuffling Americana tunes, with plenty of organ and mellotron flourishes. Muriah Rose features more here than on last year’s Dolorosa, much to the songs’ benefit. Since Permafrost at least, Bill has focused on layering electric guitar parts, and Winnowing features his lushest work yet; seldom raucous, with hardly a proper “solo” within earshot, there’s a lot going on here with the guitars. This is also the best-produced of the “home studio” albums, as the experimentation of the WPA series of EPs has paid off in the engineering and mixing on Winnowing.

The packaging follows the example of the last few releases, featuring design by Jason Judy and consisting mostly in photographs taken around Bill and Muriah’s New Mexico home. Like Amber Waves, the cover offers no title or artist credit, just a desert scene of early-fall greens, oranges, and yellows. This desert scene focuses on Bill, head bowed, as in many of the songs. Full lyrics are included in the packaging, and even the printed words are cast against the backdrop of the desert.

Not a “concept album” in the usual sense, Winnowing is nonetheless one of Bill’s most cohesive albums, and serves as a strong entry to his already impressive body of work. As such, it’s a great jumping-on point for newcomers, and an “essential” album for already-fans. It captures the essence of Bill’s work as a songwriter, guitarist, singer, and album artist.

Winnowing is available for listening and purchase at Bill's Bandcamp. It is also available as a limited edition vinyl LP.

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