It is never easy to anticipate what will come next from Eric Bachmann. Whether it was his wildly eclectic albums with Archers of Loaf, his film scores, his understated and brilliant solo album, or the discs he’s released with Crooked Fingers, they all offer something a little different, managing to fall in line with something decidedly his, but he never replicates a sound on an album. Even with Crooked Fingers, where he’s found a more consistent sound, no two albums sound the same. A song from Bring on the Snakes is distinctly different from one on Red Devil Dawn and so on. That is what tends to make his releases so rewarding, not because they are full of out-and-out surprise, but because he subtly turns his craft in different directions.
And that is certainly true with Forfeit/Fortune. It is definitely the biggest sounding Crooked Fingers’ record, one full of thundering drums and horn sections and strings. It’s also got guests from the likes of the Silver Jews and Devotchka, giving Bachmann’s songs a new energy, one that can pay off big on some songs. “Phony Revolutions”, with its horn lines and fuzzed out guitar playing in unison bolster an already catchy song. “Cannibals”, Bachmann’s most infectious song since “Big Darkness”, is full of riding keys and muted guitar riffs, laying a subtle and solid base for Bachmann to stack his quick-release lines on top of each other until the song becomes wonderfully stuffed with melodies. And “Let’s Not Pretend (To Be New Men)” slows down and plays a lone violin and a thundering cello against Bachmann’s nylon-stringed guitar with brilliant results.
As the title suggests, the album is full of songs where quests reach a point of perfect success of utter failure. What is problematic, though, is that the album itself follows this same trajectory. Despite the highlights mentioned above, a good amount of this album is nearly undone by its production. The live in-studio recordings from the last album, Dignity & Shame, showed the intimacy and warmth built into Crooked Fingers’ songs. It was a stripped down and amazing sound, a major step forward for the band. But here, the album was recorded in pieces, with a lot of different players, and there is a lot of distance in the sound. Forfeit/Fortune always sounds big, but rarely intimate. The drums on tracks like “Luisa’s Bones” and “Give and Be Taken” are far too big, often overpowering the fragile sound of Bachmann’s guitar. And Bachmann’s vocals, always a soft growl worth getting close to, are kept echoed and distant throughout, making songs sound spacey and aloof instead of what they could be, precise and revealing.
Even a song as good as the closer, “Your Control”, a duet between Bachmann and Neko Case, is nearly broken by the heavy-handed use of schmaltzy faux-strings and synthesizers. Luckily on that track, they smartly focus on the vocals after the first 30 seconds, and the brilliant combination of their voices — Bachmann’s service road with Case’s astral plane — make it a wonderful end to the record. And there are other moments that overcome the production, enough that Forfeit/Fortune ends up better than the sum of its parts.
But it is still an album that could have been so much more. Eric Bachmann has always made records that felt created, and never produced, and that was what made them shine. But here the songs are in service to the sound of the record, and not the other way around, like they should be. Forfeit/Fortune is another turn in Bachmann’s craft, and certainly the effort is more admirable than traveling the same road over again. But sometimes if you follow a new path too strictly, it can get you lost.