Like a photo negative of the pseudonym for Stephen King, Eric Bachmann has emerged from the shadows of various band names to assert his own identity. King, at the height of his early pulp-horror popularity, adopted the name Richard Bachman in an experiment designed to test the marketability of his material without the popular name attached. After nearly a decade of fronting the indie / college rock superheroes the Archers of Loaf, and subsequently Barry Black, before beginning a solo career as Crooked Fingers with the Warm and Merge labels, Bachmann has finally recorded an album using his given name. Yet neither King nor Bachmann were necessarily hiding from their public or their art by their decisions. In fact, with the name changes, both end up releasing work that is the most raw, emotional and unguarded work of their respective careers. To the Races is Bachmann’s debut, he of the double `n’ and of the musical persuasion, which finds the former `band frontman’ all alone, giving the performance of his already noteworthy career.
To the Races was written in the back of a van. While it was Bachmann’s touring van, he was not actually on tour at the time. Instead, he was living in some kind of self-created exile from the world at large, a state which obviously hugely influenced the songwriting process, before returning to his North Carolina home in winter to record this spare masterpiece in a hotel. The result is so delicately moving, that is seems blasphemy or sacrilege to even attempt describing. But since this is a record review, I have very little choice. The album opens with the near six and a half minute stunner, “Man O’ War,” beginning with the wispy sound of acoustic guitar before being accompanied by Bachmann’s own commanding voice, sounding as if it were made specifically for this kind of music. What makes this combination so perfect seems somewhat unexplainable. Why is it that the great ones, Dylan, Springsteen, and hell, even Neil Diamond, or even some of the newcomers such as Damien Rice or Sam Beam, so compelling? The answer that I keep coming up with has to do with a subtle complexity within the music and a singular recognizable voice singing intimate storytelling lyrics. “Man O’ War” is merely the first example of that same dynamic, yet isn’t the finest or the last.
Songs such as “Carrboro Woman” and “Genevieve” speak volumes in their single plucked notes and vocals so earnest as to seem naked and vulnerable. The harmonica parts in the former seem to make one yearn for riding the rails in a boxcar while the latter’s loneliness will make any listener pine for some lost love. “Genie, Genie” is one of the true standouts, a raspy and desperate plea for help at the bottom of a bottle. It’s one of the more unabashed and unrestrained songs on the album, while still retaining that lonesome quality, but is particularly clever in its use of analogy in desperation. “Lonesome Warrior” is another undeniably great track featuring two of his guests, Devotchka’s Tom Hagerman on violin and backing vocalist Miranda Brown. Their contributions, though making the composition fuller, seemingly make the song even more lonely and haunting, as if the echoed vocals and weeping strings somehow resembled a sad, empty room. The instrumental title track is more reminiscent of an actual Devotchka song, Eastern European in nature, though with somewhat of a Spanish influence that seems to find its way into nearly every previous Bachmann release. “Little Bird” could easily be considered the best song on the album. Its straightforward hope-filled lyrics are universal, only made more poignant by the overlapped vocals and subtle piano.
There’s a very distinctive style of music that seems to be based out of Team Love and Saddle Creek, and Bachmann has just raised the bar for the entire roster. He’s like that kid in school who ruined the grading curve for everyone else by not only acing the test, but also getting every extra credit question as well. Well, even if To the Races is some kind of test, its one that Bachmann should be more than proud to sign with his own name.