After releasing one of 2008's best records, American Hearts, A.A. Bondy returns with the equally compelling When the Devil's Loose. Whereas the songs on his previous album usually had only acoustic guitar and harmonica for accompaniment, there's more of a ensemble approach here with nimble and evolving arrangements that find Bondy and band experimenting, stretching out.
For those only familiar with Bondy's previous band, Verbena, he has carved a solo career that lies somewhere between the wonderfully ramshackle sounds of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, the songwriting acumen of Ryan Adams, and the introspection of Iron and Wine. In the end, Bondy emerges as the best singer of the three - his spine-tingling vocals both cutting and chilling.
This latest album, recorded in Mississippi, simultaneously serves as an creative advance while also feeling like a transition point, especially if one sees how Bondy seems to be following the creative path of early Dylan. The presentation of his songs has sonically grown from the textures of the Freewheelin' Bob Dylan of American Hearts to The Basement Tapes on his latest.
Also like Dylan, Bondy's songs present timeless themes. Fire and brimstone. Good and evil. Like The Basement Tapes, When The Devil's Loose sounds like a strong group of demos, and this only adds to its overall charm. The songs sound like they've existed forever, born from dusty sheet music of centuries past.
The album leads off with Mightiest of Guns which evokes the soul of Tears of Rage. Immediately following, A Slow Parade feels like an rough out take from Bondy's former band Verbena. These openings track merely hint at the kaleidoscope of sounds to come. From soul gospel (To The Morning) to folk rock (I Can See The Pines Are Dancing) to old-time parlor songs (On The Moon), the breadth of vision on this record is stunning.
A few songs on Devil particularly stand out. The first is Oh The Vampyre. Bondy seems to be playing with our latest societal convention regarding vampires. Not long ago, vampires were an image of evil, a metaphor for those who lived off of others. Today, vampires have become tragic figures for teen girls similar to James Dean's on screen persona.
With Vampyre, Bondy humorously challenges our new view of the vampire. On one hand, he lets the vampire tell his sad tale. On the other, he continually reminds the listener of the blood from others that keeps him whole. The song is recorded twice on the record with the second appearing as a "country version." Regardless of which version, if this song isn't playing over the True Blood credits by season's end, then their music supervisor needs to be fired.
Another track of note is The Mercy Wheel. It will be a challenge for anyone to write a better song this year. Few songs can match its chorus:
Into the mercy wheel, see it spinning in the twilight
Tell me how do you feel, like a hard blow in a bar fight
And it's a Mississippi night with the heaven's wheeling bright
and I don't hold on so tight
The album ends with All Rise. This epic track builds in intensity over the course of nearly 8 minutes. As it ends, with Bondy repeating of the song's title over and over, he sounds as if he's singing straight from the pulpit.
Two albums in, A.A. Bondy always sounds true. Nary a false note, still singing songs like he's lived them. Knowing where Dylan muse led him after The Basement Tapes, the excitement over Bondy's next album has already begun to grow here in the Swampland.
- Jim Markel