Crooked Fingers

Breaks in the Armor

Rating: 3.2/5.0

Label: Merge

It’s official: I’ve now been a music fan long enough that I’ve had to make wholesale adjustments to my perceptions of certain performers. Dave Grohl has spent far more time in Foo Fighters than he ever did in Nirvana and recent towel-throwers R.E.M. soldiered on without Bill Berry as their drummer for almost as long as he was on the official band roster. Similarly, it’s probably time for me to settle on the idea that Crooked Fingers defines Eric Bachmann’s contribution to the wide musical landscape as much or more than his efforts with Archers of Loaf.

Archers of Loaf may have had a more seismic impact on the college rock scene in the 1990s (and are, admittedly, enjoying a modest revival this year with a relatively high-profile reissue campaign and a summer reunion tour), but there have now been more proper albums issued under the Crooked Fingers name and it’s been a longer-lasting outlet for Bachmann’s musical voice. Sure enough, the new release {Breaks in the Armor} has an easy, well-worn quality. What it lacks in urgency, it makes up for with casual certainty. There’s an endearing ease to the record, a profound sense that Bachmann knows exactly how his music should sound these days. He has nothing left to prove.

Having nothing left to prove is not the same as having nothing left to say, thankfully. Starting with the percolating acoustic guitar intro of album opener “Typhoon,” Bachmann is clearly committing to a quiet intensity in his songcraft. “If it’s summer, sing me a song tonight,” he pleads, and the whole thing feels like a sort of offering. These tracks are for sending into the night and listening for the echo of understanding. The tender, mournful “Heavy Hours” laments, “Outside your window, waited for you/ You didn’t come/ You never do” and it sounds like dusky heartbreak, a secret shared, almost inadvertently. Bachmann’s husky baritone (compared endlessly and accurately to Neil Diamond’s) always seems to carry a tone of confession, like he’s singing alone on a battered porch somewhere, hoping someone is eavesdropping on the off chance that the unnamed figure may be able to offer absolution.

Crooked Fingers has always been a strong distillation of Bachmann’s sensibility and, in that respect, Breaks in the Armor actually works best when it’s at its most plain and insular. If there’s any artist out there who would be best served by repeatedly recreating the bedroom demo vibe of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, it’s Bachmann. An increase in adornment usually leads to a corresponding decrease in value. “Went To the City” opens with a rhythmic piano part (a rhythm echoed a couple tracks later on “She Tows the Line”) that is quickly met by Bachmann singing with an syncopated, hiccuppy yowl that sadly calls to mind Kings of Leon at their most unctuously bombastic. Beyond being a little out of character, it just doesn’t serve the music well. The intricacy of the song gets lost in the sudden pushiness.

There is some gratification to be found in Bachmann’s desire to mix things up on the album – “Bad Blood” is a nice example of how turning the amps on and then up can be a very good thing – but it’s the bruised soul of the sparer material that really sticks. At its best, it’s almost enough to convince me that Crooked Fingers is the only outlet Bachmann ever needed.

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