“Man O’ War” begins To the Races as if plucked from the soundtrack to a great lost Hal Ashby film of the mid-1970s. Over a softly picked guitar, Eric Bachmann tells a loose tale centered on itinerancy and aquatic imagery, his own voice rising and ebbing like the tide as it escalates up the register from occasionally Dylaneqsue phrasing to a full-on Tim Buckley howl. Like Ashby at his best — think The Last Detail, Coming Home, or Harold and Maude — Bachmann conveys an almost visceral sense of contingency. For the filmmaker, this stemmed from an emphasis on character over narrative, while for the singer-songwriter it derives from a nomadic sense of wanderlust; there’s a temptation to succumb to a misty-eyed vision of Bachmann’s backward-looking sound as tapping into some antediluvian 1970s world unencumbered by the government surveillance and digital databases that keep tabs on our every move today, but that would miss the real source of power here, which is simply songwriting and delivery. On “Man O’ War”, Bachmann creates an open world that might play off our nostalgic constructs of decades gone by but hardly relies on them.
If only the rest of To the Races were as entrancing as its first song, Bachmann would really be on to something. As it is, the album earns praise, but reserved praise; its forlorn, vagabond ways wander over the same turf a few times too many. Certainly Bachmann has traveled far from his mid-’90s days of hipster irony as frontman for the Archers of Loaf — there are no icky mettles here, only starry night skies and sorrowful departures. To be sure, Bachmann has been mining this territory for several years now as the one-man-band Crooked Fingers, but To the Races marks his debut as an official singer-songwriter. The album’s content reflects its origins: written in the summer of 2005 while Bachmann lived out of his van in the Pacific Northwest and recorded in mostly solitary fashion in a North Carolina hotel room, To the Races serves largely as a ten-song meditation on unrootedness. “Man O’ War” commences the theme with reference to being “set adrift”, and “So Long, Savannah” closes things with yet another wistful exit. “I may drift and I may roam / She’s the one I call my home”, Bachmann sings on “Home”, but even he sounds only half-convinced.
One can read as many influences into Bachmann’s efforts as one will. In addition to the aforementioned Dylan and Buckley, Townes Van Zandt and his subdued fatalism loom large over the proceedings; Bachmann’s “Carrboro Woman” lives only fifty miles down Interstate 40 from Van Zandt’s “Greensboro Woman”, and “Genevieve” could well be the daughter of “Kathleen”. For that matter, one could trace the archetypal theme clear back to Odysseus, if so inclined, but it wouldn’t make Bachmann any less lonely to be in such company. Even when he does make a human connection, as on “Carrboro Woman”, its ephemerality is noted from the outset, as he tells his sad-eyed lady of the tour van, “you ain’t my woman and woman, I’m not your man”. On “Genie, Genie”, he’s hoping for fancy cars, a pretty wife, cocaine, or whatever else is available to feed a craving so inchoate he can’t define it. By the time violins sail in on “Lonesome Warrior”, we’re glad that something is keeping Bachmann company.
Indeed, the few instrumental flourishes adorning To the Races‘ largely spartan guitar-voice arrangements add considerable emotional heft to the songs. Tom Hagerman’s violin pops up every so often, and Miranda Brown’s vocal harmonies also periodically sweeten the starkness of Bachmann’s material. Sometimes the instrumentation backfires — the title track is an oddly zippy little guitar-violin jig, somewhere between the Tetris theme song and the score from The Third Man — but in general it’s wisely restricted to a supporting role, thus precluding any excessive infringement on the solitude.
The main problem is that, after about seven tracks of this stuff, it grows a bit repetitive. Bachmann’s mention of “old clichés” on “Little Bird” hardly exonerates the song from wallowing in them, and To the Races draws to a close with some of its least memorable tracks, mitigating its impact. Still, Bachmann’s weary voice sounds utterly convincing, especially in the context of other, younger folkie upstarts, exuding experience in a way that, say, Willy Mason does not, while avoiding the overwrought verbosity of a David Dondero. If the album grows somewhat staid at times, it never quite gives way to despair, nor does it suggest Bachmann (or his singing persona) will be settling down any time soon. He’s seen through the romanticization of the On the Road myth, but awareness alone can’t shake those hellhounds on his trail. Inertia is all that keeps Bachmann moving, and when To the Races manages to convey both the freedom and the exhaustion of that motion (as it often does), the delicate balance it strikes offers a compelling glimpse not just of what’s chasing Bachmann, but of what he himself is after.