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The Boston Phoenix Car Tunes

Verbena's drive-time rock

By Richard Martin

AUGUST 30, 1999:  What do Gene Kelly, Barney Rubble, and Kurt Cobain have in common? Besides their all being icons of past eras, male, and fashion-savvy, each in his day weighed in on the nuances of singing as an accompaniment to an unrelated activity. Kelly made singing in the rain cool, a suave and solitary expression of inner peace. Fred Flintstone's diminutive sidekick couldn't sing on key under threat of expulsion from Bedrock, but he also found wetness an occasion to croon; when he set foot in the tub, the flowing water transformed him into the golden-toned Caruso of cleanliness. Cobain, already embittered by an audience that didn't "get" him, chided the guy who "likes to sing along though he don't know what it means" during the vitriolic chorus of "In Bloom."

It's unfortunate that Cobain didn't think this through, because the music fan inside him should have comprehended the joys of driving around and singing along to a favorite song, rather than assailing a certain type of person for doing so. Besides, he missed his target: around the time Nevermind came out, I saw a guy behind the wheel of a Saab convertible singing along merrily to "In Bloom."

I found my favorite album to sing along to about two years ago, when a friend turned me onto Verbena. The Birmingham (Alabama) trio's debut full-length, Souls for Sale, had just been released on a label I generally trusted, Merge, though more for tuneful indie rock than for searing and cross-pollinated rock and punk. Souls for Sale flaunted the necessary ingredients of car music: the swaggering drawl of the vocalist, the self-absorbed guitar work, the unflinchingly rhythmic drumming, and the vaguely empowering and open-to-interpretation lyrics. "I'm in love with the size of the desert," Scott Bondy sang amid a torrent of hooks, then added, puzzlingly: "Never seen it but I love to kiss a cactus."

The band's allusions to the Stones, the Stooges, and Nirvana could have been viewed as smug or calculating, but Bondy and his female foil Anne Marie Griffin cut right through any comparisons. The two gnashed their voices, offhandedly stitching a homespun Southern charm into each familiar-sounding riff or tune, somehow making the end result sound gritty, dirty, and often downright sexual.

I've experienced not one but several epiphanies while driving down some barren highway and blaring Souls for Sale from my car stereo, straining my vocal cords to join Bondy and Griffin in the naughty blues rawk of "Junk for Fashion," the beatific dirge "Postcard Blues," and the surging, "Hey, Come On." This last opens with the singers sounding as if they were on a staticky AM radio, then extends an invitation to get in the car, then blasts off into irresistible, egotistical grunge pop with the line "This song goes out to no one but me/But I'll try just to sing a little harder."

In short, Souls for Sale is a damn tough act to follow.

Three years later, Verbena pull back onto the highway with Into the Pink. Of course, things have changed: bassist Daniel Johnston (not the eccentric Austin singer/songwriter, in case you're wondering) is gone; they've signed with Capitol; and one of their staunchest fans, Foo Fighter Dave Grohl, produced the new record.

I didn't take any of these signs as positive at first notice. Neither did I rejoice when I put on an advance copy of Into the Pink and heard the reverb-heavy piano chords of the opening ballad, "Lovely Isn't Love." Almost frantically, I scrolled through to see whether they'd gone down an entirely different road. Drummer Les Nuby seemed more prominent -- not surprising given Grohl's input. The guitars sounded slicker, more insistent. But there was enough "there" there for me to give it a few more spins. In the car, with the volume cranked, Into the Pink revealed itself to be vintage Verbena, with Bondy and Griffin (and me) screaming on track three, "My baby my baby my baby got shot!" Then a sly Cobain-esque guitar and vocal moment to rev up "John Beverly." Then a smoky, sexy midtempo turn for "Prick the Sun," all Southern soulful and humid.

The downside: Into the Pink can be unrelenting. A couple of tracks veer into speed-metal territory more suitable for a souped-up suburban Camaro than the generic Ford that I drive. The facile stomp of "Submissionary" comes off too practiced for punk and not loose enough to be rock. It's a skeleton of a song.

But mediocre tracks can elevate in the context of a great album, an album with its own voice -- and Into the Pink comes close to being one. Verbena couldn't recapture the naïveté of Souls for Sale, so they went out and made something as unfashionable as a classic, or classic alternative rock album. It may just be the rock album of the year for people who've become jaded with rock.

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