What in the hell happened to ex-Verbena frontman Auguste Arthur Bondy? Less than six years ago, he was leading his Birmingham, Ala., blues-punk trio into unnervingly loud guitar-rock territory. After major-label releases earned lukewarm praise, Bondy broke up the band, moved to upstate New York and recorded his solo debut, American Hearts, in a weathered barn using an old analog machine and a single acoustic guitar. Critics were unanimous in their admiration, calling the album everything from "archetypal" to "Dylanesque."
Still, how does a guy go from punching out metallic riffs like "Hot Blood" to fashioning an elegant melody like "Lover's Waltz"? Perhaps he sold his soul.
Regardless, Bondy's high-decibel background recedes further into his rearview with his second folk-music effort, When the Devil's Loose. This time, he holed up in a Mississippi water-tank town and enlisted friends to back him up on piano, bass and drums, playing a milder Crazy Horse to Bondy's Neil Young. The latter is a touchstone for "A Slow Parade," a chugging ballad at once mournful and menacing and with lyrics of epic desolation—featuring broken horses, cremated remains and an infinite sea. There's the Otis Redding-on-Codeine lullaby of "To the Morning," so classic in its construction you'll mistake it for a cover of an old Stax 45.
Confirmation of Bondy's devilishly awesome powers, though, lies in "The Mercy Wheel," a highway-blasted tune of faith in a faithless world.