Getting in Tune
Eric Bachmann recently had a revelation. He realized that he liked writing songs. He liked writing them so much that he came up with a name for a new project -- Crooked Fingers -- and wrote an entire album full of tunes, with verses and choruses and Bachmann singing like he means it, from the opening bars to the very last note.
Bachmann's enthusiasm for songwriting may not seem like a revelation to those who already know him as the principal songwriter for the Archers of Loaf, a band that formed almost ten years ago and released four full-length albums before disbanding amicably in 1998. On each of the Archers' recordings, beginning with 1994's acclaimed indie rock fave Icky Mettle, and ending with the significantly more complex White Trash Heroes four years later, Bachmann is credited repeatedly as songwriter. Yet Crooked Fingers, Bachmann's latest solo release, aligns him much more closely with singer/songwriter-types like Richard Thompson and Leonard Cohen than fellow indie scribes Thurston Moore or Lou Barlow -- something that, in the not-so-distant past, he might have regarded as cause for concern.
"Five years ago, a lot of us wanted to make fun of songwriters," Bachmann says. "Thompson, the Carpenters -- we mocked them. But the fact of the matter is, if you listen to a Carpenters song thirty years later, it's still enjoyable. If you're making music that's just ironic, five years later it doesn't mean shit. I think that's why people are going back to songwriting, to real themes, rather than some guy singing about a bad haircut."
Truly, when the Archers first began banging out their noisy fare in the early '90s, their disdain for traditional songwriting was obvious. Like many of their peers -- and at a time when Charlie's Angels lunchboxes, handwritten zines on Xeroxed paper and lo-fi everything were among the primary concerns of the independent music underground -- the Archers continued on a path that had been cleared by the likes of Sonic Youth and Pavement. The Archers' clamorous guitars embellished roving pop melodies, while Bachmann's obtuse lyrics and purposely non-singerly vocals did their best to warp any notion that the band was a purely pop affair. With Superchunk and Polvo, the Archers were among a handful of acts that made their hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a veritable hipster depot in the mid-'90s. Though the band at times exhibited clear strands of experimentation, its members seemed to uphold the pervasive, if unspoken, indie belief that studied musicianship was a flag of impurity -- that a person who demonstrated a real instrumental skill might be tempted by the corruptive lure of -- horror of horrors -- a major label recording contract. As a result, the Archers' music never seemed to fully employ the more refined abilities of its lead singer.
Before becoming a full-time Loafer, Bachmann had been a performance major at Appalachia State University, where he studied alto and baritone saxophone. He knew his way around not only the guitar and drums but the organ, the banjo and the clarinet. These skills showed up on the Archers' final full-lengths -- 1996's All the Nation's Airports and '98's White Trash Heroes -- which found them going in more musically adventurous directions. But it was Bachmann's first solo project of 1995 -- a fourteen-track instrumental album titled, and credited to, Barry Black -- that indicated there was a truly talented and versatile composer trapped inside the lanky, thrift-store-garbed anti-hero. At times recalling Russian folk music (heavily dosed with plenty of Stolï, or substances even more potent), Barry Black found Bachmann and some of his friends from the Southern musical enclave (among them pianist Ben Folds and producer Caleb Southern) playing with Moog synthesizers, vibraphones and brass. The album was distinguished by its emphasis on improvisation and collaboration, with Bachmann commanding the drunken ship. It was circus music, children's music, with bits of Waits and Beefheart nestled between whistles (credited as an instrument on the album's liner notes) and loops of a device that makes baby dolls sound like they're alive and crying. Tragic Animal Stories -- wherein Bachmann attempted to evoke the sounds of a different species on each cut; the tracks featured titles like "Horrible Truth About Plankton" and "Snail Trail of Tears" -- followed in 1997, with Bachmann producing and manning everything from ebo to samples. The Black recordings are atmospheric, cinematic, weird little records, borne of Bachmann's brain but not his sole creation. They were regarded by many listeners as masterful.
Yet they were not, as Bachmann clarifies, songwriting. Not in the way that Crooked Fingers is.
"In many ways, this is the least collaborative thing I've ever done," he says, "because it was basically just me in a room writing everything down and coming up with a song and a structure. When I play live, there's a little bit more room for interpretation. I'm always getting input, but the music is not the product of improvisation like the Barry Black stuff was.
"Right now, the single most interesting thing is the song itself, and songwriting as a whole," he adds. "I used to write songs that needed noise, or all kinds of embellishments, or needed to be put into a certain context to work. Now I write stuff that can be played with drums, or cellos and violins, but more importantly, can sound good on just one or two guitars. It can stand alone, stripped to a primitive structure."
Context isn't the only clearly appreciable difference between Crooked Fingers and any of Bachmann's previous works. First, he sings on the album. Not with the restrained, range-wary quality of his Archers days, but with a confident and full voice. Bachmann's vocals change throughout the album to better match the melodic theme of each song. On "Crowned in Chrome,'" the album's first track, it's clear that he's not afraid of high notes, but then he assumes a masculine growl on "New Drink for the Old Drunk" and "Man Who Died of Nothing At All." And throughout, his vocals invite an unlikely, but undeniable, comparison to Neil Diamond. "People say that to me apologetically, like, 'I don't want to offend you, but...'" he says. "I'm not offended at all. I like old Neil stuff. I would say he's less of an influence than other people, like Dylan or Nick Drake -- I don't own any of his records or anything -- I just know so much of it from simply being alive in America."
Crooked Fingers also finds Bachmann showing a serious interest in narrative lyrics, another departure from the Archer days. Whereas Loaf seemed to relish in non sequitors ("I wish I could say that they were meant to be suggestive and open to interpretation," he admits, "but a lot of times I was just trying to make things rhyme"), the ten songs on the new album weave tales of sadness, of broken lives and people. And while most songwriters will pull from personal experiences to make composite images for songs, Bachmann says most of his songs are odes to specific people in his life -- sometimes bitter ones at that ("She Spread Her Legs and Flew Away" is a case in point).
"The songs are definitely more focused," he says. "In the past things were so loose, people would ask me what something was about and I didn't have an answer. Now, if someone were to ask what a Crooked Fingers song is about, I feel like I could tell them. They are about specific people, and a lot of them are not exactly happy songs about people. They might not want it to be known that a certain song is about them. They're not hostile, though; they're just more therapeutic for me, which I think is a healthy way to deal with feelings. I've done quite a bit of learning in writing these lyrics."
Crooked Fingers was released on the Athens-based label Warm Electronic Recordings, which also handles fellow Southerners Empire State, a band that features Lambchop's Alex McManus (who sometimes plays guitar with Vic Chesnutt, yet another Southern boy). The two bands are sharing bills across the country, including an upcoming gig in Denver, and Bachmann says the arrangement can lead to interesting onstage play. (Also on the bill is former Man...or Astro-Man? guitarist Brian Causey, who contributed electrochime and percussion to Crooked Fingers.) The Southern-themed tour isn't some attempt to make the South's profile as a seat of music culture rise again, but a natural result of the spirit of collaboration between many of the region's like-minded artists.
"There's basically just a lot of people down here who like to play together," he says. "People have similar interests, but we're all doing different things. I mean, sometimes you'll get together and it's just kind of boring but it's still fun, and other times something really interesting comes out of it. A lot of us believe that there's still a lot of good stuff to be done with music. I am not so cynical that I'm tired of music, so we get together when we can and see what happens.
"It would be a very good thing if it was cool again to know how to play your instruments," Bachmann adds after a pause. "The whole thing with punk rock and indie rock was that if you had a lot of personality, you could be in a band. That's fine. Everyone who wants to should be in a band, I think. But not everybody can make a goddamned record and put it out. There's so much crap, it's hard to get to the stuff that comes from a place of talent. But when you do get to it, it's just obvious. It's so easy to tell when something is genuine when you pit it against what's out there."
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