Rock reincarnate 

Verbana resurrects its Alabama swagger

Rock history is haunted by the ghosts of innumerable bands who burned out, smashed up or ran out of gas short of their destinations. Verbena should be among them, and yet these punch-drunk rockers have somehow righted their ship. Re-christened as the Alabama Boys Choir, they hope to recapture the promise of their stellar 1997 debut, Souls for Sale.

Emerging out of Birmingham, Ala., with a Stonesy swagger soaked in piss 'n' vinegar, Souls for Sale distills the brash adolescent hormonal verve at the center of rock rebellion into a scathing, guitar-driven homage to Verbena's heroes. The album earned the band critical accolades and a major-label contract.

"It all seemed really fast because we had no idea what was going on," says singer/guitarist Scott Bondy. "Especially being from here. It doesn't matter how good you are, there's really no one around to snatch you up the second you have a good song. Which turns out to be a good thing, because then you can actually develop something, pretty much unhindered. There are no bands to take your cues from, so we took our cues from records. [With Souls for Sale] especially, you can reference a bunch of different bands -- like, this is Neil Young, this is the Stooges, this is the Rolling Stones. It's like Playskool's My First Record."

Verbena's major-label follow-up, Into the Pink, lacked much of the debut's charm, exchanging the latter's soulful rock sway for a high-throttle, over-driven attack that bears more than a passing resemblance to producer Dave Grohl's own signature rock outfit, the Foo Fighters. Calling the album and resultant tour one unmitigated disaster after another is something of an understatement, and it culminated in the mid-tour departure of Anne-Marie Griffin, the band's second guitarist, and a crucial part of the band's joyous boy-girl harmonies.

Now it's almost four years later, and according to Bondy, the band is back from the brink.

"I think we kind of lost ourselves and what we were doing on the last record," he says. "We got spoiled to a certain extent by whatever -- and it wasn't like success, necessarily. It's like you have opportunity thrown in your lap and you're supposed to act like you don't care. We lived and died by our own sword -- believe me. It seemed we were always doing our best to kill it -- snatching defeat from the jaws of victory time and time again."

Having survived not only the train wreck of its last album and tour, but the departure of its A&R man and three label presidents, the band approached its new album with a new attitude.

"It sounds really hokey, but we just had fun being in a room together. It was a really joyful experience," says Bondy of the new album, recorded in L.A. with Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck) and due in April. "I wish this would've been where we'd gone after the first record. I think the first album's honest; that's why I like it. I don't think the second one is, and I don't have any problem saying that."

Bolstered by this better feeling, Bondy decided to dispense with the old name. "I don't want to go out representing this band as something it was before," he says. "It's almost as if I'm speaking about a different band, because it feels like it."

So together with Les Nuby, the drummer he's played with off-and-on since he was 17, and a new bassist, Alabama Boys Choir -- nee Verbena -- prepares for another run 'round the track, now as a three-piece. And while he recently turned 30, Bondy dismisses talk of any newfound maturity or renewed purpose.

"I've come to the fact that I'm stunted emotionally -- and I'm not even joking," he says. "I'll have these epiphanies and go, 'You know, I should have had that figured out a long time ago.'"

But Bondy stresses that he's in no hurry.

"I think it's really kind of restraining to set time limits on yourself," he says. "It's what drives most people to marriage and children and stuff. And if that's what makes most of the world go around, well, it's not my problem."


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