As the leader of Archers of Loaf in the ’90s, Eric Bachmann stood out as a unique sort of frontman. Though his vocals echoed the requisite smart-assed attitude and occasionally surrealist imagery that saturated the era’s most notable indie acts, his baritone had a ragged and weathered tone about it. Bachmann was an earnest but rowdy foil to the aloofness of Stephen Malkmus, the helium-voiced enthusiasm of Mac McCaughan, the stoned emotional reflections of Lou Barlow, and the drunken incomprehensibility of Robert Pollard. So nobody should have been surprised, in the aftermath of the Loaf, when Bachmann started up Crooked Fingers, an equally Waits- and Springsteen-inspired dark folk-rock band that played to his raw, wizened pipes. And 13 years later, as the Archers of Loaf have returned for sporadic reunion shows and Crooked Fingers’ run continues to span long past that of Bachmann’s former band, that stylistic fit sounds more warm and lived-in than ever.
While Bachmann has long embraced rootsy, yet haunting sounds throughout his tenure as sole permanent member of Crooked Fingers, the band’s fairly simple template has led to a surprising array of diversity within their catalog. They’ve done gothic E Street band on Red Devil Dawn, and added some exotic, Spanish flair to Dignity and Shame. But latest album Breaks In the Armor is simpler, more stripped down and weathered. Written while Bachmann lived in Taipei, where he taught English as a second language, there’s a sense of weariness, regret and isolation through these songs that’s bolstered by their uncluttered arrangements, allowing their anguished beauty to shine through.
As Bachmann sings “There’s a typhoon blowing” on leadoff track “Typhoon,” he wheezes with the dramatic intensity of an old blues singer, even while the song itself sounds more like Archers of Loaf than anything on Crooked Fingers’ past few albums. Likewise, “Bad Blood” has a rollicking rock ‘n’ roll abrasiveness to it, while Bachmann’s lyrics tell of foreboding trips to fortune tellers and the shared revelry of drawing out one’s bad blood. But Bachmann can be at his most chilling when the arrangements are stripped to their barest, as on “The Hatchet,” in which his words, “I mean what I said… I mean what I said,” ring with an eerie intensity that further noise might just obscure. And he saves some of his most pained laments for “Heavy Hours,” with lines like “I waited for you/ You never came/ You never do” stinging even as Bachmann’s voice soothes.
Though Breaks In the Armor is very much an album of treating old wounds, drowning sorrows and finding misery some good company, Bachmann’s hard luck tales never seem to beg for sympathy. In fact, they’re often quite beautiful, comforting and warm, no matter how deep the regrets behind Bachmann’s bluesy rasp. Breaks In the Armor is great company for late nights, or a good drinking companion, elegantly tattered, but damaged in the most beautiful ways.
Eric Bachmann – To the Races
Smog – Knock Knock
Songs: Ohia – Didn’t It Rain
Stream: Crooked Fingers – “Typhoon”