It’s an interesting phenomenon when you can hear people grow up through their music. As frontman for North Carolina indie popsters Archers of Loaf, Eric Bachmann was a clever youth, playing as much on noise and chaos as he and his bandmates did with anthemic indie pop. But eventually, Bachmann began exploring his own diversions from the lo-fi norm. In Barry Black, he employed a piano in playing more subdued instrumentals in-between the Archers’ All the Nation’s Airports and White Trash Heroes albums. But after the seminal indie rockers disbanded, Bachmann sounded as if he aged ten years with his new band, Crooked Fingers, a Waits-and Springsteen-inspired outfit that eschewed the over-distorted guitars for a classic, heartfelt singer-songwriter sound, albeit a somewhat creepy one.
Now, three albums into their career, Crooked Fingers sound even more refined than before. Dignity and Shame, the group’s latest, sees Bachmann exploring themes of human relationships and how screwed up and illogical they can be at times. His characters have grown into Hemingway’s heroes, simultaneously fucked-up and romantic. And they somehow seem to find themselves in exotic locales, primarily Spain. From the Spanish instrumental opener, “Islero,” to “Andalucia” to the picture of the slain matador on the inner sleeve to the flamenco dancers on the back of the jewelcase, Bachmann has firmly established a heavy Spanish theme on this one, which adds an unexpected bit of flavor to a style of music that otherwise would be considered distinctly American.
After the opening instrumental, Dignity opens strong with the more Southwestern (and not Spanish, strangely) sounding “Weary Arms,” a beautiful song with layers of lyrical twists that are both romantic and, as the album title suggests, shameful: “Old lovers too/Don’t think for one second that they’ve forgotten you — they’ve forgotten you.” But don’t mistake Bachmann’s brutal sincerity for misanthropy. Though his lyrics may be painful and honest, they’ve got nothing if they don’t heart. Just listen to “Twilight Creeps,” in which Bachmann sings “Why does everybody always act so tough when all anybody wants is to find a friend.”
Musically, the album is breathtakingly gorgeous. Not in a Sigur Ros or Radiohead way, but rather like Tom Waits’ mid-period ballads or Springsteen’s Nebraska. “Call to Love” is slightly reminiscent of later Archers material, but still keeps in the same rugged vein as the rest of Crooked Fingers’ material. “Twilight Creeps” sounds a bit like The English Beat’s “Save it For Later” with more of a Latin-flavor, making it one of the highlights of the album. “You Must Build a Fire” is more of a gentle ballad, as lap steel weeps underneath Bachmann’s gravelly baritone and plucked acoustic chords. “Valerie” is a bouncy love song from the drunken perspective of a man convinced that he’s changed, and as resigned and hopeless the lyrics seem, the song is joyous and celebratory, as trumpets blare on top of the song’s sprightly beat. “Andalucia” is a manic, dark country-rock song with a radio-ready chorus. And the two final songs on the album, “Wrecking Ball” and the title track, are piano-heavy ballads that wrap Dignity up with a softer, quieter ending.
Eric Bachmann has gone through many stages of musical metamorphosis on record, which almost makes his music with Crooked Fingers all that much more endearing. It’s a grown-up and comfortable kind of music that’s optimistic but melancholy, with sincere but literary lyricism to match. Bachmann seems to be more confident and artistic with each release, proving that maturity in music can be a good thing after all.
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