A.A. Bondy takes it easy throughout his new full-length When the Devil’s Loose, but it’s a subtly tortured record whose religious preoccupations and melancholia seem ingrained. A former rock star who found the pressures and constraints of big-time, big-label life a drag on his muse, Bondy whistles in the dark on When the Devil’s Loose. He seems focused on larger issues of life and death, love and hate, but he doesn’t think he’s making religious art.
On this record, “I don’t think there’s anything that has to do with that,” Bondy says. “Someone could say ‘Jesus’ and it could have nothing do with Jesus. But I don’t know why that is at this point.” On his first solo collection, 2007’s American Hearts, Bondy had quoted “I Just Want to See His Face,” one of the tracks on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. Bondy’s new music doesn’t have much to do with the Stones and seems like a dim memory of rock and roll. It’s skeletal and doleful—one of the slowest records in recent memory.
Now 36, Bondy spent his formative years in New Roads, Louisiana, not far from Baton Rouge and the Mississippi River. At 13 he moved to Birmingham, Alabama. First coming to attention in a Birmingham band called Verbena, Bondy practiced hard in what he says was a fairly indistinct local scene. “I always felt separate from everything that was goin’ on there,” he says about Birmingham. “There wasn’t even like there was a group of bands at any given time that were touring heavily.”
Touted as a Southern-fried alternative to Nirvana in the late ‘90s, Verbena released a couple of solid full-length albums; 1999’s Into the Pink, produced by Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. They were a tight, aggressive band, with Bondy’s classically disaffected rock and roll vocals up front. These days, Bondy looks back on those heady days with some asperity.
“Being in that band on a major label was not making music,” he says. “What we should’ve done was just take the money and hidden somewhere and made the records we wanted to make, knowing that they probably wouldn’t have gotten promoted. It’s normal for a young band to reach for the ring, be a big band. But that’s just f***n’ stupid.”
Verbena made one more record, 2003’s La Musica Negra, and Bondy went off to reinvent himself. He assumed his birth name, Auguste Arthur, and cut American Hearts by himself in Palenville, New York. (He says he doesn’t live there any more, but isn’t more specific: “I don’t know where I go next, really.”) It takes on various forms of bedrock American music—post-grunge mixed with the wayward guitars of Alex Chilton’s depressive masterpiece Like Flies on Sherbert [sic].
When the Devil’s Loose continues the sound, but Bondy says he’s more open and confident as a songwriter these days, and not afraid of going for the unguarded moment. “I started recording with other musicians and singing live in the room at the same time,” he says. About half the tracks on When the Devil’s Loose were recorded in this fashion, but the record feels sparsely populated even when there’s a full band charging along.
Bondy believes his songwriting has changed over the years. “I don’t think it’s so much about craft as it is whatever it takes to get to arrange things until they feel right,” he says. “The less time I spend on things, the better I feel about them—I don’t like to torture things. I attempt to talk about it, but I can’t speak as to why one day you get a good song and one day you don’t.”
The record is full of country, blues and gospel music. “To the Morning” works out its 6/8 gospel feel and finds it way in the dark. The songs are minimalist and sleepy, as if Bondy woke up out of an afternoon nap to perform them. He doesn’t seem to sing his songs so much as visit them, and doesn’t offer any easy explanations for what he’s doing. As he says, “I don’t know what I’m into.” You believe him.
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Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Michael Hurley, Charley Patton, Nina Simone. He also digs Australian band the Dirty Three and Godspeed You Black Emperor. “It’s weird—I tend to like things that don’t involve singing.”