Forget the Fugs: Robin Williamson and Mike Heron were the real utopian folk hippies of the mid-to-late 1960s. Rooted—indeed, entangled—in a mélange of medieval minstrelsy, syncretic mysticism, and (by their own admission) drugs, the duo quavered and wavered their merry, meandering way down musical roads not so much less traveled by as undetected by any cartographer. Heron’s high point was “A Very Cellular Song,” Williams’ “Ducks on a Pond.” Both appear here. And both illuminate the gospel in ways that remain exhilaratingly unique.
That 50 albums is too many for any singer-songwriter does not mean that a singer-songwriter’s 50th album is therefore superfluous. It could represent a new peak or a return to old ones. Mallonee’s 50th represents a little of both. The folksy, roots-rock hooks have been a staple of his music since he was a Vigilante of Love. The lyrics, however (try “Once your heart gets broken, kid, it just keeps on breaking”), keep getting pithier—always a good sign where the overproductive are concerned.
This catchy, multilayered pop that’s both more and less than it seems wouldn’t have been possible without the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, which wouldn’t have been possible without Sgt. Pepper, which wouldn’t have been possible without Pet Sounds. And none of those classics express thoughts as aphoristic as “Keep that list of who to thank in mind, / and don’t forget the rich ones who were kind” or as frustratingly elliptical as the meditation on God’s name “Ya Hey” (which wouldn’t have been possible without Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”).
Fascinating—an album that’ll have you wanting to sleep and stay awake. Its somnolent qualities are obvious. From Witmer’s soft, lulling voice to the pools of acoustic dreaminess atop which notes seem to float, music doesn’t get much less rock ’n’ roll. What will agitate your brain enough to keep you from nodding off are the subtly provocative words. Eventually, you won’t need to know that the project appears on Sufjan Stevens’ label or includes Don Peris’ guitar to suspect Witmer of having discovered the beginning of wisdom.
One could say much about The Ballad of Boogie Christ (Lonely Astronaut), the latest album by the visionary singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, and all of it would be as true as it would be insufficient to describe the music’s richness—for example, that it simultaneously focuses and expands the musical and verbal details of Bruce Springsteen’s most panoramically exuberant rock beyond the blue-collar horizon and into realms where one wrestles against flesh and blood and against spiritual wickedness in low places.
Arthur himself has said, “I wanted to let the listener fill in some of the blanks without telling the whole story in a straight-ahead way.” Those blanks include, but aren’t limited to, what redemption and sanctity might look and feel like to people desensitized to their need for either. Those blanks also have a Messianic shape. “Jesus, come calling,” sings Arthur in “All the Old Heroes.” “We’ll be here and falling, / praying for your hand to show.” —A.O.