Fat Possum Records
The South is one of the last places as far as I know where they try to preserve their way of life. They don't want strip malls, or maybe the strip malls don't want them. It's just darker and weirder to me.
- A.A. Bondy
A.A. Bondy, once known as Scott Bondy to the music industry, was the leader of Verbena. This Birmingham, AL-based band was damn good, and they also sounded damn close to the grunge movement that was enticing major labels during the 90s.
After a short stint at the NC indie Merge Records, Verbena signed with Capitol. Instead of becoming part of a breakthrough movement, the band soon met criticisms like this: "...most of [Verbena's] Into the Pink sounds like forgotten mid-'90s grunge." [allmusic.com] Signed because they approximated Nirvana in an A&R man's eyes, Verbena was quickly trashed for being too much like/not as good as Nirvana. Bitter irony indeed.
Four years later, A.A. Bondy has emerged with American Hearts. This record, originally released on Superphonic Records out of his Birmingham, AL hometown, captures a singer-songwriter who completely understands how to make music reverential of past forms like blues, folk, and country without merely mimicking them.
When listening to American Hearts, one can hear strains reminiscent of The Freewheelin Bob Dylan or Rod Stewart's Gasoline Alley. In fact, Bondy's voice sounds much like the synthesis of Dylan's, Stewart's, and Stewart's musical partner at the time, Ronnie Wood. At once, he can exhibit the bite of Dylan with the soul of the Stewart and the fragility of Wood.
If this sounds like high praise, indeed it is. In an age where intimation and ambiguity seem to define anything of artistic value, Bondy's direct and soulful approach with his music feels utterly bold.
As the record begins with How Will You Meet Your End?, the listener might be thinking that this is merely a stripped-down folk blues record, but the next track There's A Reason lilts and soothes with a melody that aches. The entiriety of American Hearts becomes a series of aural counter-punches moving from single, fingerpicked songs to full band performances. All the while, the intensity is sustained and constant.
Bondy has tapped that rare ability to fully vision oneself as a artist with his first record. Another musician that comes to mind is the late Chris Whitley who did the same on his debut back in the early 90s. Bondy and Whitley share many of the same sensibilities. Fans of Whitley should explore Bondy's music without delay.
Ultimately, American Hearts serves as a display of Bondy's roots. Verbena's first full length record had a Stonesy feel to it, and that band's roots directly lie in the various southern musical forms. By delving back further into these basics, Bondy has found himself again so that many others can discover him for the first time. Kudos to Fat Possum for giving this record a wider release.
American Hearts becomes an early candidate for best release of 2008.
- Jim Markel