Once the musical agitator for the fine Chapel Hill quartet Archers of Loaf, who thrived on him on for five fine and intense albums starting in the mid-’90s, Eric Bachmann packed it all in for this four-LP career as a wandering minstrel called Crooked Fingers. A multi-instrumentalist and sordid chronicler of limping despair and off-the-mark ambition, Bachmann combines mannered, civil singing, rough hewn acoustic guitar, folk song aesthetics and shambling, hillbilly melodies to create minor key notes of Appalachian toughness and tenacity. If the low-key wizardry gets tiresome at times, or if (gasp) Bachmann occasionally resembles a Carolinian Springsteen by way of Nebraska, that’s cool. There’s plenty of honesty, front porch philosophizing, epigrammatic soulfulness and characters with their doubtful dignity barely attached on these albums, making them ideal for bleak afternoons.
What were supple guitars and piquant melodies in the Archers are here disarming, eclectic, mournful arrangements, a stripped-down world of tricky, but elemental riffing and narratives that can’t be codified into partial truths by the college crowd upon one hearing. These songs are, in the best sense, ambiguous. They straddle the barely urbane world of Chapel Hill with those mazy, forested mountains to the west. Bachmann’s singing is impressive: he essays the musical theme haltingly, with piano or guitar dissonance, then allows the song to gallantly gather, an assured and mature response to songwriting craft. He discloses truth in a shadowy world, leaving behind canny observations and dramatic exchanges between his voice and guitar. Verses spill onto each other, reckless, unmoored, with the words eventually finding serene upright positions by the time the edgy endings abruptly come.
As with Mark Lanegan, Mark Eitzel and Will Oldham, once Bachmann left behind the more notable and comfortable settings of his more famed band, he developed a honed-in, elemental urgency. With a core group of strong players (Jo Jameson, Robert Lloyd Martin, Barton Carroll), a revolving door of outstanding percussionists, dense productions, superior album art direction by Brian Causey and inventive instrumentation (lap steel, mandolin, electrochime, banjo), these albums bespeak the gentle, but intransigent, melancholy of a drifter in towns “where nothing moves” and where “even the vultures have moved on.”
Crooked Fingers fails to spark at times: the brooding mounts without tension, the music is slightly too appealing for the barren atmospherics, the lyrics fail to probe. Even with his cockeyed foghorn vocals and an empathetic eye for the abnormal, Bachmann seems too satisfied to even leave his slightly lofty perspective. The music and sentiments aren’t that removed from other fine artists treading these similar murky waters: Smog’s Callahan, Joe Henry and Samuel Beam. But the elegiac, dark “She Spread Her Legs and Flew Away” redeems the recording: there’s poetry of chagrin in the lines and a sinuous melody that prefigures many fine moments to come.
The naked self and the lower registers of a frog afflicted with emphysema reach more notable heights on the better produced (Brian Paulson) follow-up, Bring on the Snakes. The music has been emptied of lighthearted and meandering minstrelsy. This is Crooked Fingers’ most bottom-heavy and plain-spoken record: sparse arrangements, empty spaces and lugubrious ballads predominate. Hell and boredom (there’s a difference?) provide the mise en scene. Just the titles “Surrender Is Treason,” “Devil’s Train,” “Sad Love” and “Every Dull Moment” should suggest the bleakness. Bachmann’s emotive singing and understated guitar — weeping but tough; tenuous but stubborn — carry these convincing songs to unexpected places.
Short Careers is a decent soundtrack for the insipid movie Ball of Wax. (The same filmmaker was responsible for the vastly superior Sheriff a few years later.) Although stuck for the most time making sweeping grand statements, the music intermittently mirrors Crooked Fingers’ singer/songwriter and retreats to folksy chamber music. That part is successful; the rest merely matches the cheerless pretensions of the baseball film.
Reservoir Songster is a five-song EP of covers. Prince’s “When U Were Mine” is magnificent, and Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is a reminder what a great songwriter he could be. But the highlight, and what amounts to a theme song in the sense that its druggy melody, sad and autobiographical lyrics, and expert and economic phrasing which indemnifies the song against a mere charge of plagiarism, is Neil Diamond’s (sole) masterpiece, “Solitary Man.”
Red Devil Dawn is Crooked Finger’s finest album. Martin’s mandolin and lap steel, plus Bachmann’s clever use of tapes and looping, makes this album a curious amalgamation of the new (studio wizardry) and the old. There’s nary a false note. Glue sniffers, carrion doves, real bad love affairs and a note of eternal darkness pervade. This music is measured, dignified and stately, with endings that don’t so much resolve as associate with the landscape’s tremulous despair. Every song is a winner, with “You Can Never Leave” an absolute knockout: a small town messianic voice, a chugging upright bass and incomparably poignant instrumentation.
Dignity and Shame is more of the same, with the emphasis on the latter part of the title. Jason Parker’s trumpet and Dov Friedman’s drumming are extra bonuses. There’s perhaps a greater raggedy charm in the proceedings — the singer appears to be on dry land instead of drowning, for a change — and the songs offer more solid pockets of affirmation. There was once love here, and if it’s gone by way of the mud, wrecking ball or twilight creeps, that’s OK, because being hopeless in hero-less small towns builds character. So much that Bachmann and his fine music can cover up his wrists’ scars with irrestible, masterful songs: on the title track, a mournful declaration of pressed-down existence, he exhorts, “You can choose dignity or shame / You’ve got to carry your heart like a torch in the night.”