When A.A. Bondy retired his distortion pedal along with his Nirvana-inspired indie-rock band Verbena earlier this decade to pick up a battered acoustic guitar and harmonica neck-rack, it wasn’t as dramatic a change as that description might make it sound. Sure, his 2007 solo debut American Hearts was stark and more rooted in folk-blues than screaming riffs, but Bondy still draws inspiration from his career-long favorite topics: religion, death, and religion. The haunting new When The Devil’s Loose finds the Alabama-born troubadour letting a backing band enter the equation, and while Bondy has dialed down the volume, he’s maintained his intensity.
Whereas American Hearts finger-picked its way through tales about Jesus, a plague, and the apocalypse, Devil achieves goose pimples on similar subjects by enveloping them with a subtler, more ethereal approach. The gently rising “A Slow Parade” and reverb-ensconced “False River,” for instance, form odd counterparts by not only reaching out stylistically with more patient guitar lines and markedly bittersweet and bare vocals, but ruminating on the narrator’s lemming-like march into the water and how the survivors deal with the aftermath. When The Devil’s Loose showcases a resolve and relief Bondy’s never evinced before, as if he’s raked his hand through the sands of these spooky songs and transformed the grains that stuck into flawed, captivating pearls.