Music: Rock's Not Dead

Dogged by lineup shakeups and certain persistent comparisons, Verbena continue on the path to Rock & Roll Nirvana

Sep 30, 1999 at 2:06 pm

There's something a little ridiculous about being in a Rock band. 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 the millions of Rock bands that have come before. Verbena proves that Rock still matters. They aren't super-revolutionary, just brilliant enough to remind that part of the beauty of Rock & Roll is getting old sounds to seem vital through passion.

Produced by Dave Grohl, the band's second record, Into the Pink (Capitol), is a swaggering blast of big guitars, Les Nuby's open-throttle drumming and male/female-intertwined vocals. Unfortunately, the female half of the equation, Anne-Marie Griffin, is on "hiatus" from the band, so at least for the current tour it's up to singer/guitarist Scott Bondy to carry the entire vocal load. From his home in Birmingham, Ala., Bondy explains that Griffin is most likely returning to the fold at some point, "(but) not right now. We're just trying to work out whatever problems we have. Rehearsal, stuff like that. We haven't played together in two months, so it's not like (she) can jump back in.

Plus, she and I probably need to go to therapy together — we know how to push each other's buttons," he says.

"I think it made us better without her; I have to play better and sing better. I want — if and when she does come back — for us to be at our best, with her on top of it."

Even with Griffin harmonizing, Verbena owes a big debt to Nirvana's metallic Pop. Without Griffin, the similarities are stronger, but there's more to them than that. They aren't a direct copy or Grunge-lite, more likely they have similar influences and inspirations — anger, liquor, sex and confusion — but any rockin' Alternative band is going to show signs of owning Nevermind, especially with Grohl producing.

"Pretty Please" is based on a circular four-note guitar run with a stuttering drum beat that goes rhythmically against it, similar to the inverted Metal riffs that Kurt Cobain was fond of using. And at the chorus, Nuby's flailing is a dead ringer for Grohl's straightforward, pulsing kick drum and loose-limbed cymbal bashing. But "Pretty Please" 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 as much to the Sex Pistols as the N-band.

There is the song title of "John Beverly" (Sid Vicious' real name), "Pretty Please" — with lyrical quotes taken from the Sex Pistols — and the boots-marching sample that begins the title track (just as the Pistols did with "Holiday in the Sun"). It's as if they want to pre-empt criticisms 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 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," with subtle oohs from the background singers and Bondy sounding world-weary. It sounds like the kind of piano ballad a '70s Rock band might throw in for crossover appeal, only placed in context of Pink it's a brooding foreshadow. "Baby Got Shot" rolls up and down, with Bondy's guitar coming in like a muscle spasm, and "Submissionary," which skronks like The Fall, boasts angular guitar chords bouncing off the walls. 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 have crafted a solid album, as opposed to a collection of songs. This record is the reason that the trio have been celebrated as one of a handful of bands providing the rebirth or saviors of Rock, even as they struggle with their own existence.

Bondy gives a sarcastic laugh when reminded of the magazine articles that trumpet the return of Rock, with Verbena — an unknown band with personnel problems — 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 rock, creatively this is 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 no moneymaking bands to emulate, groups are free to experiment because there isn't much pressure. Maybe it's time for Alternative to rise up again.

"Alternative to what?," asks Bondy. "It's almost like Rock & Roll or Punk Rock or whatever has become a subculture again, and it's not a mainstream entity any more. It would be good for it to maybe go away and rethink itself before it comes back out."

He is the first to admit that Verbena has yet to really experiment. Rock is simple and primal; Verbena is simple and primal. Whether howling, whimpering or begging for love, this is a band intoxicated on the power of its songs and a firm resolution to be important. It's just that, admittedly, their creativity is running second behind their soulfulness.

"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 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.

"Rock & Roll is supposed to be dirty, so as the saviors of Rock, I don't bathe."

VERBENA performs at Sudsy Malone's on Wednesday with guests, Ditchweed.