“But if you took that shit out
And you took all the music out
would remain? The voice no doubt”
— Guru (Gang Starr) on “Mostly the Voice”
One of the tenets of the indie/hardcore/punk explosion that took place between 1975 and 1985 was that you didn’t need to be a classically trained musician to start a band. Bands would feature howlers and yelpers who couldn’t carry a melody if their entire vinyl collections were at stake. Backed by a refusal to allow talent to get in the way of inspiration, the idea wasn’t how well you rocked but how hard. Most bands featured singers who were longer on spirit than ability. Take away the snarling guitars, anti-establishment lyrics and what do you have? A whole lotta yelling that’s rather unpleasant without the rhythmic accompaniment.
Not that you have to be a classically trained singer to be a magnificent singer. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Tom Waits are three singers whose voices standout because of their uniqueness. However, unlike the punk rockers, their voices carried a lot more than outrage. They could pack one thousand emotions and one million tales into three or four sentences. Their music was brilliant, but their rasps, howls, inflections, and croons were indicative of people who may just know what it means to live life. Eric Bachmann has that kind of a voice. A voice that embodies the sound of someone whose known nothing but misery, but knows that even a miserable life is better than the absence of one. Bachmann’s voice is the kind that you imagine a character from a Flannery O’Connor or William Falkner would have. He is a storyteller, not a bluesman, telling of what he is seeing, rather than what he is going through. A witness to the burnt out, one general store, one church and abandoned mill towns that make up most of the country sitting between New York and Los Angeles. Rather than burying his world in a pile of shit, Bachmann is aware that the only way to survive in such harsh surroundings is to celebrate the little things in life. Through his band, Crooked Fingers, Bachmann is not offering warnings or sob stories, but observations of a world that is rarely explored.
Crooked Fingers first emerged in 2000 as Bachmann’s post-Archers in Loaf brainchild. The whole project seemed to be an extension of the Archers last album, White Trash Heroes. On songs like “Dead Read Eyes” and “Smokers in Love”, Bachmann first began to expose the demons that make up the dregs of our society for the regular people that they are. His self-titled debut seemed to focus on a bar in a town where there’s little to do, and even if there were, not much money to do things with. By the time the ten-track album was finished, it seemed as if listeners were now privy to the live of ten different people. The instrumentation was sparse as Bachmann used a variety of guitars to coax breathtaking melodies. If you hold folk music to its true definition, then Bachmann is one of the modern folk singers. The second Fingers’ release, Bring on the Snakes, was less successful. While Bachmann still retained his magical storytelling abilities, the sparse, less lush nature of the songs made the album seem too light in the britches. The album was by no means a failure, just a step backwards from the promise of his debut.
Neither the Crooked Fingers first two releases, or any of the work with Archers of Loaf, could prepare anyone for the stunning, jaw dropping, third release Red Devil Dawn. If Bachmann was on the verge of joining troubadours like Waits and Arlo Guthrie, on Red Devil Dawn he kicks in the door and puts his feet up on the coffee table. The album opens with “Big Darkness”, on which Bachmann sings about a town much more American than New York or San Francisco: “Dead in the sun covered in glue / There is a town where nothing moves / Nobody works and nobody plays / All of their dreams have melted away”. Playing to his strength, Bachmann pushes his voice to the forefront by melodic guitar pluckings that are gradually aided by a string section that lets you know that the town may be without hope, but it is not dead.
The next track “Don’t Say a Word” is a twisted lullaby that a broken parent at the end of his rope might sing to a newborn baby. Full of words of foreboding, the track is eerily beautiful. The pace quickens on “You Can Never Leave” as a violent storm is carried on the backs of violins. The instruments resemble heralds of doom, as they intensify to the beat of a rushing cavalry, with only Bachmann’s voice and guitar offering any solace. His voice is full of affection and re-assurance, like a summer sunset’s warmth. The following track, “Bad Man Coming”, is reminiscent of vintage Springsteen circa Nebraska. It’s important to note that while there is a temptation to compare the feel of Red Devil Dawn to some of Springsteen’s work, the essential difference is the song’s settings. Bachmann’s music is positively non-coastal. Though Springsteen’s songs could only take place in once vibrant suburbs, Bachmann’s seems more rural. Where Springsteen sings of places that have seen better days, in Bachmann’s world there were no better days.
A new face to the Fingers sound is introduced on “You Threw a Spark”. As if being emitted by a thousand South of the border parties, the song features rollicking horns and a “good time” feel previously unknown to the band. Crooked Fingers has been increasing in size for some time, and while the lap steel and mandolin have always been central to their sound, the use of trumpets brings in a much different element. Of course, Bachmann’s gruffness makes him sound like a visiting cowboy standing on the edge of the party admiring and taking in a glimpse of a party as a break from the solitude and harshness of his own reality. A track later, the Fingers revisit their mariachi stylings with “Sweet Marie”. “Sweet Marie” is Bachmann at his storytelling best as he details the tale of a jilted lover who offers to thrash his beloved’s newfound interest. Recognizing that all he can offer his ex is a dose of the ugliness that is inside everyone, he kills the new love, giving her no choice but to choose him. The song is a harrowing tale that is offset by the classically festive playing of the horn section.
On Red Devil Dawn, Crooked Fingers have made huge strides towards becoming one of the most fascinating bands in some time. The horn and string section have proven to be the missing ingredient in Bachmann’s delicious stew. His use of the lap steel has always produced chilling effects, but seemed more the work of a drunk who occasionally gives up brilliant insights than the work of someone who knows how to employ all of his tools. At the end of the day, it is his voice that makes Crooked Fingers such a unique entity. Take away the music, and I’d still love to hear the man tell a tale over a glass of Jack Daniels on a porch during the muggiest days of the summer.