I just don't get most of alt-country — what is it even alting us out of at this point? And one thing it usually leaves behind (for special talents like Neko Case and former Verbena frontman A.A. Bondy to find) is a sense of vulnerability. A unique trait of (good) country music is its ability to transmit weakness as power; in this respect, Bondy's voice cuts through these simple little songs like a trusty pocket knife.
There's a revelatory sweetness not just in the familiar bridges of "To The Morning" (like waking late with "Wind Cries Mary" barely audible downstairs) but in his voice, which lilts across the melody with a fresh-out-of-bed plainness. Bondy's presence here isn't some blurry first-person abstractathon, nor is it a looming shadow.
The songs on When The Devil's Loose (the follow-up to 2007's American Hearts) have enough variety that you always get the sense he's trying to surmount the song and not the other way around. The title track is a beautifully velvety blues soup that wouldn't seem out of place on that most recent Papercuts record; the sparkling little guitar line at the center of "The Mercy Wheel" could have come from a pre-69 Magnetic Fields record; a host of sudden fade-outs lay bare the band's loose jammy underpinnings, which are stoppable only through sliders on the board. Most of the songs light up, shine for a while, and pull back so suddenly that you feel a little betrayed. It's a shame these dry lullabies didn't surface earlier in our dreary summer.