Birmingham, Alabama, probably doesn’t make many top rock and roll city lists, what with the history of segregation and abortion clinic bombings. But nobody passed that memo to B’ham area rockers Verbena, who use their city’s jaded history to inform their music on La Musica Negra, the band’s follow up to their Capitol Records debut Into the Pink. One spin through La Musica Negra, with its numerous allusions to guns and God (nearly every track invokes one or both) and it’s not hard to see that Birmingham has burned itself into the brain of lead singer Scott Bondy.
But first, a small variation on the game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. 1999’s Into the Pink was produced by Dave Grohl (who summed up the band thusly: “It’s like a nasty, sexy Rolling Stones meets Debbie Does Dallas tuned down to a C”, for those of you itching for a frame of reference.), who moonlit as drummer on the Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf, of which La Musica Negra‘s opener “Way out West” sounds like a forgotten track. It’s a small, convoluted world. Bassist Nick Daviston tunes his instrument to near-Olivieri levels of dirty fuzz, and the song, with its album/song title namedropping (“Some Girls”, “19th Nervous Breakdown”, “Rubber Soul”, “Mexican Radio” and the Big Star-invoking title itself to name a handful) could be the rock and roll rebuttal to QOTSA’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” drug litany.
The QOTSA comparison holds up for the album’s first third, as the blues strut of “Killing Floor (Get Down on It)”, “I, Pistol,” and “It’s Alright, It’s Okay (Jesus Told Me So)” all crush anything in their path. In addition to being the keys to their hometown’s history, the band hints that the “God and guns” angle are shots at the current presidential administration, or to use their words: “mock[s] the Bush II brute American burlesque”. Regardless of one’s politics, Verbena’s message is couched in big guitars and Rob Schnapf’s even-handed production.
After the opening salvo of La Musica Negra‘s first four tracks, the band explores different territory. And not a moment too soon, as the fuzz of their take on tortured Delta stomp gets a tad repetitive by the time “It’s Alright ...” closes. The mid-tempo “All the Saints” illuminates a jangly side to the band, while the spare “Camellia”, with its backing vocals courtesy of Emily Kokal and a chorus of “hallelujah”, could be another band entirely.
To these ears, Verbena sounds most at home in edgy power pop territory (a lesson learned from Grohl?) as evinced by “White Grrls”, a summery track whose chorus of “White grrls do what they want / But I don’t get mine” captures the essence of power pop: unrequited love. (Trend of two: “White Grrls” marks the second quasi-commentary on race and sex, joining Electric Six’s asinine-but-harmless “She’s White”.) Meanwhile, “Me and Yr Sister” boasts the album’s best hook and “Ether”—as light as its name suggests—repackages lead singer Bondy as a Jeff Tweedy in training. And before La Musica Negra ends with the piano-driven “Dirty Goodbyes” (a beautiful track that doesn’t fit with the rest of the album), Verbena gets a few more good rock licks in with the stomping standout track “Devil in Miss Jones” and “Rememberer”, which comes close to veering into later ‘90s post-grunge plodding, but is saved by Bondy’s soaring guitar solo.
Verbena may have made it to the big leagues of rock, but the weight of the history of Birmingham continues to inform their work—lyrically and sonically, with their aggressive melding of rock, blues and punk—Verbena has, with La Musica Negra, turned in a document that’s an synthesis of the ghosts of their hometown.