I’ve just struggled through La Musica Negra, the third album from Birmingham, Ala.-based Verbena, and at least one thing is true: my hair is now completely free of split ends.
Okay, that may be a bit of a negative exaggeration, but the band, which has been on track toward straight-ahead rock since dropping Souls for Sale on Merge in 1997, does not bring any unique qualities to rock music. Verbena, which takes its name from a town in Alabama (itself named for a pretty li’l herb) and was formerly called Shallow, sounds instead confused about integrating the strong blues tradition of the South into the modern rock genre while creating a sound all their own.
Instead of a solid follow-up to their previous work, this first attempt on a major record label seems more experimental. They go from fast rock with singer Scott Bondy exuding an arrogant sneer of a wanna-be rock star in “Way Out West” to light, crooning rock in “Me and Yr Sister” and finally end with “Dirty Goodbyes,” a song filled with gentle piano sounds and low vocals. If Verbena could find some quality, whether in the vocals or in the music, to string each song together, they could actually perfect the task of blending blues into rock. Something like the song “I, Pistol.”
“I, Pistol” retains a twangy bluesy guitar drawn into a slightly faster rock intensity accompanied by a low thumping of drums. Bondy’s vocals are low and gritty, the kind that lingers off the singer’s tongue and intrigues you enough to care who they are. Instead of alternating between fast, slow and somewhere-in-between songs, Verbena should take this example of a compromise between sounds to create a coherent album.
With songs like “It’s Alright, It’s Okay (Jesus Told Me So),” I was expecting some subtle mockery of the classic Southern good ol’ boy Christian outlook. It wasn’t until “Camellia” that I began to strongly question this prediction. The track started out promising for lovers of softer sounds, as Bondy shared his spotlight with the soothing background vocals of Emily Kokal. Then I hit the hallelujahs, which are repeated until the song’s pitiful end. I felt as though I was my fifth grade auditorium while everyone held hands chanting that same word in sync with the overly emotional school counselor.
With the help of Capitol records, Verbena is winding a slow path out of Alabama. First, though, they need to examine the sound and feeling they want to exude to hold the attention of the often distracted rock listener. And to their future success after this task is accomplished, all I can say is hallelujah.