Danny Malone’s Balloons is Beautiful

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Engelsholm Castle is shrouded in myth and mystery, as any self-respecting 16th-century castle should be. Built by some unremembered alchemist to align somehow with the stars, the structure appears a white-hot mark on the Danish countryside, its four onion-domed towers reaching up to the heavens like ecclesiastical antennae. Some swear there’s magic in the walls; others say it’s only ghosts. Danny Malone first encountered the place in May 2010, when he was invited to partake in a three-day songwriting session with eleven other songwriters from around the world, including fellow Austinites Matt the Electrician and “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb. The group emerged with a bunch of co-written songs, Malone with their titles inked on his forearm.

2009’s Cuddlebug introduced us to Malone’s charm: singing incessant hooks, his voice ringing nasal like a violin whine, he wove sad yet sweet tales with his guitar. His protestations came out earnest and personal like early Bright Eyes, but with enough self-distance that he more often ended up smirking at his melancholia than wallowing in it. When he went to record his sophomore full-length, something beckoned him back to the castle: perhaps the pull of something supernatural, perhaps the memory of a place where creative juices flow like church wine. Gaunt and boomy, Balloons stirs with the ethereal unrest of Engelsholm. Malone’s emphatic songmanship does not become diluted in the vast halls, only dressed in natural reverb and veiled in many layers.

Owed in no small part to producer Matthew Smith’s knack for intricate found-soundscapes, the album plays like a hypnotic quilt of many patterns. Opener “Spiderlegs” starts with Malone fingerpicking a delicate melody. Barely-there whispers and handclaps flit about just on the edge of audibility, coalescing at the right moment into a groove of people percussion. Chameleonic synth drones and washed-out organs creep into the mix, layering and shifting. You rarely hear instruments come in; rather, you sense a new intensity first, then you realize the spectre of a synth hum or a chorus of hushed voices has joined the arrangement.

These electric songscapes aren’t without purpose, as they give elucidating context to Malone’s oft-cryptic lyrics. When he breaks into the chorus on “Middle Names,” an absurd love song featuring a jambalaya of handclap rhythms, the jarring major lift and joyful keyboards make clear that “let’s trade a pint of blood and run inside each other” is supposed to be more romantic than creepy. Other standouts include “Lee Woke Me,” a heartbreaking song about a girl in a coffin, and “Fly in the Window,” a tender piece that suggests beauty in feeling helpless.

With its well-controlled flow of energy and masterful nuance throughout, Balloons establishes Malone as one of Austin’s most enchanting songwriters. If you want to catch him live, he’s playing a show with Grace Park (of The Blue Hit) this Saturday, August 31st at the Special Magic Barn Fantastic, his East-side living/recording/performance space.

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– Kevin Allen