Rhythm & Views


To make too much of the fact that Verbena is from the South is tempting, mostly because of the haunted Delta tradition. Also, what other city (outside of New Orleans, perhaps) possesses the mythic creepiness of Birmingham, Ala., birthplace of Sun Ra and home to the nation's largest KKK chapter? "The Magic City," it was once called. But the magic has long since dissipated, leaving only a dismal, post-industrial patina over the people and places that now inhabit this church-bombed, church-burned landscape.

Indeed, the South, punished forever for the sin of slavery, has never caught up economically with the North, and never will. It makes sense, then, to emphasize the Southern heritage of an intelligent rock outfit that manages to create articulate music in a largely inarticulate music region--and during an inarticulate time in general for aggressive music.

Enter Verbena, a lacerating blues-rock trio that's equal parts Nirvana, Stones and Stooges. Produced by Rob Schnapf (Beck, Guided By Voices, Saves the Day), La Musica Negra is a full-on, raging, Southern rock album minus the bullshit irony and schtick that powers such cheeseball acts as Nashville Pussy and Southern Culture on the Skids. The blistering opener, "Way Out West," is a cruise missile aimed at the listener's chin. The death boogie of "Killing Floor (Get Down on It)" will get your booty shakin' as singer/songwriter/guitarist Scott Bondy gets in touch with his inner Skynrd. "I, Pistol," is an evil slow jam with a funky wah-wah line somewhere between Curtis Mayfield and an ambulance siren. "It's Alright, It's Okay (Jesus Told Me So)," meanwhile, doesn't sound gunlike at all--it sounds like dynamite carving a mountainside. And "The Devil In Miss Jones" is the sleaziest, skankiest piece of gutter blues ever to be recorded by white boys.

This isn't to say there aren't any reflective moments on Negra. This summer, the plaintive harmonies of "Ether" will linger in your imagination until the sun is set and the last mint julip has been drained from your glass. "Camellia" paints a portrait of desolation so exquisite, you'll hit the repeat button repeatedly. "Dirty Goodbyes" is a torch song on par with--I shit you not--"Strange Fruit." It's a disturbing, mysterious song about suicide: "All quiet now on the front/Queen Anesthesia, you win/Please pull the door/Turn out the sun in time."

Indeed in terms of lyrics, Bondy borrows as much from the Book of Revelations as he does from Robert Johnson. The hellhounds are no longer on his trail; instead, they're gnawing at his heart: "Summertime, you do what you want/The cotton got so high/The air was full of lead/Everyday was just like before/Not a dark cloud in the sky/Just an ill under your skin."

There are fun moments, too. "White Grrls" is a roll-the-windows-down-crank-the-stereo-and-sing-like-crazy anthem. And "Me and Yr Sister" is rave-up from out of some secret rock 'n' roll history, where Paul Westerberg channels Flannery O'Connor. It's a harsh ride Verbena takes you on, but the thrill is worth all the jostling and lurching. As Bondy sings, "You should listen for the end/'Cause it's right over the hill/Don't you cry/You won't feel no hurt/Just close your eyes, baby/and go wherever you please."

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