The late-1990s were much louder for Auguste Arthur Bondy and his band, Verbena, the Birmingham-based rock trio he co-founded with high school friend Daniel Johnston. The group’s bluesy aesthetic seemed rooted in early ’70s Rolling Stones allure, with Bondy doing his best Mick Jagger impersonation over a strident assortment of earsplitting guitar riffs and explicitly mixed drum patterns. If nothing else, Verbena’s debut album, Souls for Sale, provided a cursory glimpse into A.A. Bondy’s aural agility, and shed an unrelenting light upon his characteristics — the slight southern twang in his dialect, the hazy simplicity of his compositions, the breezy nonchalance punctuating his anecdotes.
Just a few years later, and Bondy’s band endures a litany of changes: Johnston leaves the group and co-vocalist Anne Marie Griffin takes over on bass. Then she leaves. By 2003, Verbena has an overhauled lineup and tours extensively to promote La Musica Negra, its final album. Perhaps weary from the instability, Bondy’s solo material represented a drastic shift in his artistic direction, from raucous arrangements with rustic tendencies, to serene folk stylings for the gentle soul. For instance, the music from When The Devil’s Loose — Bondy’s second solo recording — was mostly slow-paced and totally acoustic, which gave the album an intimate feel, even if the stark differences threatened to alienate his fan base. That sonic evolution was not lost on Bondy, however. “It’s like how some people can date the same girl,” Bondy told PopMatters in 2009 when asked about his change in sound. “There isn’t anything wrong with that, I just don’t visit the past as easily as others.”
On Believers, Bondy blends the past and the present, merging Verbena’s energetic affinities with his own commonman approach, resulting in a fluid opus that’s livlier and more electronic than its predecessor, yet still very soothing and reflective, thanks to Bondy’s Pink Floyd-esque dedication to echoed vocals and airy instrumentals. That’s not to say the subdued rocker has once again redirected his focus. “Surfer King,” for example, embodies that familiar spirit, with its chilling acoustic guitar and subtle drum taps. The same goes for the moody “Hiways/Fevers,” except the percussion is a little more driven and Bondy’s voice teeters between perseverance and desperation. Elsewhere, the artist battles musical schizophrenia on the two-part “Rte 28/Believers,” which begins midtempo before slowly dissolving into a sullen, guitar-laced grunge number that grows more depressed before it ends on a positive note.
All told, Believers is the best album in Bondy’s brief discography, a cohesive project held together by an understated soundtrack and accessible storytelling. In fact, a careful examination of its cover art tells some of the story: the ghostly images of a man standing alone on a desolate road; the dusty blots of light, almost outer-worldly when cast against the night sky; and the colorless print to give the image its vintage feel. Musically, Bondy has come to embody those things, opting for the road less traveled, saturating his new album with haunting sounds that give it a rock edge, although it’s deeply rooted in folk music. Believers is another step away from Bondy’s noisy past, and he knows how to use his inside voice.