Any late-'90s alt-rock enthusiast who had the pleasure of getting her eardrums lashed by the Southern-punk fury of Birmingham, Ala.'s Verbena knows full well how the band could stop on a dime and deliver the loveliest of ballads. So it's really no surprise, then, that Verbena frontman A.A. Bondy has abandoned his amplifiers and stepped into the spotlight with an acoustic guitar, a harmonica and an arsenal of elegant, melancholic folk tunes.
Dylan is a touchstone, especially on the traditional folk stance of the title track, a plea for others not to "tread on her/For she is your sister/She was born with an American heart." Bondy, who once freighted his lyrics with phantasmagoric violence, now prostrates himself before God and the devil, channeling spiritually kaput characters struggling to acquire a taste for life's fleeting beauty over death's endless pall.
In "Black Rain, Black Rain," the speaker wanders a blown-apart landscape "like a ghost upon a breeze/in a land of elegies," convinced that "love don't die/it just goes from girl to girl." (Think: musical interlude in Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road.) It's rare for an artist of savage aptitude to drop his mask of anger and fashion a song as intimate as "Lovers' Waltz," wherein a gunfighter-like personage inquires: "Will you lay me with me until the final bullets sing?" (Think: love theme from Deadwood.) And when Bondy squeezes out a litany of cocaine, heroin and Jesus in "Vice Rag," you can feel their sweet poisons creep into your heart with more force, and more pain, than the loudest punk song.