There's something a little ridiculous about being in a rock band. Maybe that's because there are only so many poses that can be struck with a guitar, only so many emotions that can be conveyed over three chords, and only so many things that haven't been done to death by millions of others. In the narrow gap between force and finesse, Verbena proves that rock bands can still matter. They aren't revolutionary -- just powerful enough to remind us that part of the beauty of rock 'n' roll is using passion to make old sounds seem vital. Sure they sound like Nirvana. And Nirvana sounded like the Pixies. And the Pixies sounded like Hüsker Dü. And Hüsker Dü sounded like the Buzzcocks. And the Buzzcocks sounded like . . .
Produced by ex-Nirvana drummer/current Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl, the band's second record, Into the Pink, is a swaggering blast of big guitars, Les Nuby's open-throttle drumming and intertwined male-female vocals. Unfortunately for the sales prospects of the record, the female half of the equation, singer/guitarist Anne-Marie Griffin, decided that the personality problems among the members had reached a point where she couldn't tour with the band, leaving singer/guitarist Scott Bondy to carry the entire vocal load. Oh yeah, she broke the news the day the record came out last July (as Valley residents who saw a Griffinless, though still entertaining version of the band last September can attest).
From his home in Birmingham, Alabama, Bondy explains that Griffin returned to the fold two months later -- after the band returned from a pair of national tours. Speaking in a low-key tone, Bondy doesn't go into details, but stresses that the band really missed the feminine touch. "We just worked out our problems. Obviously the timing was bad, but we had just reached a boiling point, personally. It was, obviously, not a good move for the [promotion of the] record, but in order for us to make more records, it was the wisest thing to do. We always said that whatever animosity we've had is also beneficial for songwriting, but it actually ended up hurting us."
Formed in Birmingham during the height of grunge, Verbena's first output was a series of singles on well-heeled indie label Merge. Those jangle pop 45s didn't hint at the loud, raw direction the band was headed in. The group's full-length debut, Souls for Sale, released in 1997, had tension and balls to spare. A bluesy platter full of Stonesy swagger and Richards riffing, it made fans out of indie rock luminaries like Juliana Hatfield and Grohl while catching the ears of enough of the underground to propel the band to the major leagues for Into the Pink.
Even with Griffin's womanly harmonies, Into the Pink owes a big debt to Nirvana's metallic pop-punk, especially with Grohl turning the knobs. While they don't come off like a direct copy or even worse, grunge-lite, Verbena shares many of the same thematic influences and inspirations -- anger, sex, confusion -- as Nirvana. "Pretty Please" is based on a circular four-note guitar run with a stuttering drumbeat that goes rhythmically against it, similar to the inverted metal riffs that Kurt Cobain was fond of using. At the chorus, Nuby's flailing is a dead-ringer for Grohl's straightforward, pulsing kick drum and loose-limbed cymbal bashing. But the track is dark and thrashing, with the harsh/sweet vocal interplay between Bondy and Griffin giving it more of a classic rock feel -- think Fleetwood Mac on battery acid.
If anything, the group owes more of a debt to the Sex Pistols than to the N-band. There's the song "John Beverly" (a reference to Sid Vicious' real name), and "Pretty Please" -- which pays direct lyrical homage to the Pistols -- as well as the "Holiday in the Sun" boot-marching sample that begins the album's title track. It's as if they want to pre-empt criticism by showing that they know something about pre-grunge rock history, lest some wise-ass record-store clerk or critic denounce them as "Nirvena."
Bondy doesn't back down: "Obviously I'm not an idiot," he laughs. "I was pretty aware having [Grohl] attached to the record would cause [comparisons], but, whatever. You can't have loudish guitars and yelling without being compared to a handful of bands that don't predate 1991."
What really makes Verbena stand out beyond the punk pedigree are the dynamics of the record and the occasional New Wave references. The album opens with a piano and vocal piece, "Lovely Isn't Love," featuring Bondy's world-weary croon and subtle backing "oohs." It sounds like the kind of piano ballad a '70s rock band might throw in for crossover appeal, but placed in context of Pink, it's a brooding calm before the storm. "Baby Got Shot" rolls up and down, with Bondy's guitar coming in like a muscle spasm. Or "Submissionary," with angular guitar chords skronking like the Fall. Pink closes on a down note -- the strum and vocal duet between Bondy and Griffin, "Big Skies, Black Rainbows." Bringing it full circle, from the quiet piano to full-tilt rock and back down again, Verbena has crafted a solid album, as opposed to a collection of songs. It's one of the reasons that the trio (touring with Nick Daviston on bass) has been celebrated as one of a handful of bands heralding a possible mainstream rebirth of the struggling "alt-rock" genre, even as they struggle with their own existence.
Bondy offers a sarcastic laugh when reminded of the magazine articles that trumpet the return of rock, with Verbena -- an unknown band with personnel problems and miniscule sales -- standing at the vanguard. "That's a scary thing to be called; I just want to be a good band," he says. "I don't really know how to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. It's flattering, for sure, but I'm always wary of tags like that."
But with the dominance of R&B, rap, boy bands and Korn/Limp Bizkit rap-metal, creatively at least, it's arguably the best time to be in an alternative rock band in nearly a decade. With the mainstream's attention elsewhere, the influx of electronic music expanding people's perceptions and little chance of making it big, guitar-based rock bands are free to experiment without the kind of commercial expectations that made second- and third-generation grunge so dismal. But Bondy isn't entirely sure that the time has come for "alternative" music to rise up again.
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"Alternative to what?" he asks. "It's almost like rock 'n' roll or punk rock or whatever has become a subculture again and it's not a mainstream entity anymore. It would be good for it to maybe go away and rethink itself before it comes back out."
Bondy is the first to admit that Verbena has yet to really experiment with something new. Rock is simple and primal; Verbena is simple and primal. Whether howling, whimpering or begging for love, this is a band intoxicated with the power of its muse and an unyielding resolution to be important. It's just for that reason their creativity is running second behind their soulfulness. Currently, the band is writing and demoing new songs for their third record, one that Bondy says will be the first to really sound like them.
"I would like to find our voice as much as we possibly can, do something that maybe isn't using other bands like training wheels," he says. "I have a really hard time because -- it's not a cop out -- so many things really have been done. You can add to them or combine different brands of music to create your own, but I think that's the really hard thing about music is doing something that's really good and inspiring, affects people, but at the same time is original. That's one thing I think we have -- a fair amount of sincerity and a decent amount of swagger. I don't feel like we're chaste or antiseptic or sterile by any means."
Verbena is scheduled to perform on Wednesday, March 29, at Modified, with Before Braille and Death Takes a Holiday. Showtime is 9 p.m.