For many a person in their late 30s, North Carolina singer-songwriter Eric Bachmann is known as the former frontman of seminal Chapel Hill, North Carolina, band Archers of Loaf, who along with Polvo and Superchunk did much to define the genre we now call indie rock. For the past decade or so, Bachmann has adopted the personae of a wandering minstrel, dedicating himself to performing in whatever locale he settles in under the name Crooked Fingers, backed by a loose collective of revolving artists. Previous releases have appeared on the WARM imprint as well as North Carolina Triangle uber-indie Merge, but recent years have found Bachmann and company soliciting funds via Kickstarter and self-releasing.
Bachmann has released solo records under his own name, dropping an eponymous release on Saddle Creek over the last couple years, but is strongest as an ensemble performer. Each of his recent releases has featured a female foil to bolster the proceedings—previous releases have featured Neko Case and Rachel Flotard. Reservoir Songs II continues another Bachmann trend: that of EPs comprised of reinterpreted covers. The first Reservoir Songs EP was also their debut for Merge. Featuring five songs that the band had been covering live, including tracks from Neil Diamond, Prince, and Bruce Springsteen, the 2002 release has always been a fan favorite.
Almost ten years on, Bachmann is revisiting the concept, backed by an ad hoc North Carolina ensemble featuring chanteuse Liz Durrett. The six songs here feature selections from Merle Haggard, Billy Jo Shaver, and Thin Lizzy, among others, and expose the double-edged sword that these Reservoir Songs compilations tend to be.
A masterful cover is a wonderful thing, but the new trend of artists covering the songs that influenced them is rapidly becoming a diluted genre. The onus is on the artist to made the songs their own, and many times, especially when the cover is a classic, the shoes are far too large to be filled by the average artist. Reservoir Songs II opens with a faithful cover of the Osborne Brothers’ evergreen “Shelley’s Winter Love”. Bachmann bases his cover on the Merle Haggard version, adding a chattering drum machine and a healthy dose of reverb to stamp the tune as his own. Track two, “I Am Not Willing”, originally by Moby Grape, introduces female vocals to the proceedings, with faint gossamer backing expanding Bachmann’s limited range. Neither Haggard nor Spence were looked up as fabulous vocalists, nor was John Hartford, whose “Gentle on My Mind” appears in the third slot here, but the songs are exceptional and give the savvy artist a wide breadth of interpretation.
Bachmann wisely allows Liz Durrett to helm the good ship Crooked Fingers for the standout track on Reservoir Songs II. The track is a beautiful-piano driven cover of the Thin Lizzy classic “Wild One”. The track is the highlight of the EP, and seems one savvy placement away from making Durrett a very big deal. The Athens chanteuse is cut from the same cloth as honorary Crooked Fingers members Orinda Fink and Maria Taylor, but eschews companion female harmonies to make the track her own. Reservoir Songs II closes with a harmony-driven version of the Billy Joe Shaver tune “Black Rose” and the Kinks song “The Stranger”.
Releases like this second installment of the Reservoir Songs series have a limited appeal, but judging by the fact that they appealed to supporters for $5,000 to record this and received more than twice that amount, it would appear that there is quite a bit of grassroots support for Crooked Fingers and these projects. Save for the Lizzy cover, this wouldn’t be the first release I’d snatch up from Bachmann and company, but the Kickstarter push and companion incentives are a wise move to keep the Crooked Fingers name out there and ensure that their true fans will be able to be part of the experience. The largess from their fundraising for Reservoir Songs II has been allocated to the new Crooked Fingers full-length, due to be released sometime late this year. Resrvoir Songs II is probably not the release to start with for the uninitiated, but those already under the spell of Crooked Fingers (or Liz Durrett) will find much to enjoy.