Crooked Fingers

Red Devil Dawn (Merge)

The dark constellation of singer-songwriters formed by Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits is no place to go poking around if you can't stand a little self-indulgence. So pomp-averse listeners beware: Crooked Fingers may well get on your nerves. The third installment of this earnest enterprise from former Archers of Loaf singer Eric Bachmann has its share of apocalyptic imagery, compounded by the melodrama of Bachmann's croaky croon -- more Neil Diamond than Waits -- and pointlessly grandiloquent lines such as "The gods will say the love we made was a lie."

Oy, those pesky gods. Thankfully, like the best of his predecessors, Bachmann keeps a foot down to earth, as well. His arrangements are forthright, a folksy foundation salted with percussive synth and sweetened by chivalrous strings. It's a sympathetic setting for his melodies, which are classic-sounding and nearly familiar -- the breakup tune "Disappear," for example, arches as sweetly as a '60s girl-group tune, complete with "my ba-bee" refrains. Of course, the Ronettes would sound mighty strange observing that "Red tears flowed down the mountainside/Black dust filled up the starry sky," and such extravagance would sound just as out of place here without Bachmann's overweight intonations to anchor it.

Not surprisingly, the most moving of the album's ten tracks is also the least bombastic. "Don't Say a Word," elegant as a Celtic ballad, finds Bachmann dispensing with the vocal and lyrical theatrics in favor of a simple and compassionate meditation on loneliness. This kind of uncommon empathy lends Red Devil Dawn flashes of universal appeal. But solemn, mysterious people with momentous, practically mythic personal lives will like it all the more.

 
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