Beer and Pavement

On Sentimentality

Posted in Beer, Intersections, Life by Zac on February 10, 2012

Music and images elicit a certain amount of sentimentality in its audience. In fact, producers of such art depend on that sentimentality to sell their art. It’s not a deceptive practice. Musicians have to sell records to make a living and continue doing what they love.

There’s also a more authentic aspect for manufacturing some sentimentality. Artists want to make a connection through common sentiments. If I reflect on my childhood or my child’s in a song or video and it connects with you, we create a community of sorts through this kinship. Yes, there’s profit to be made, but the human connections solidified are what’s really valuable.

Some roll their eyes at sentimentality, especially when something’s for sale. Take that Deschutes video I shared a while back

Some beer enthusiasts were upset. They felt duped. Someone was accessing their sentimentality to sell some beer. They don’t like that and feel craft beer should be above such nonsense. However, it’s naive to think this way. Man, everything’s for sale, including your sentimentality. If you’re aware of it, who cares? Why not enjoy the moment?

I get a certain bit of sentimentality from beer and music. I’m okay with it being used to sell me more beer and records because I’m aware of what’s going on. I can separate something that makes me feel sentimental from what you’re selling. However, if I too feel sentimental about your product, I’m more than willing to shed reason to satisfy that need for sentiment.

Take the video at the top of this post for example. I have all kinds of feelings for this one piece. First, the song is by Eric Bachman of Archers of Loaf fame and now Crooked Fingers. Archers of Loaf captured the angst and blue-collar anger of my youth, feelings that still resonate with me. Crooked Fingers came around at some interesting transitions in my life. Darker sides of my mindset heard Bachman’s drunken laments and it connected. Ever since, the more mature material Bachman has released speaks to me as I grow older and accumulate adult responsibilities. His last album was completely overlooked by me and possibly should have made my final ten of 2011. For this, I feel a little guilty.

The video and song together really connects to sentimentality of my current state. Watching a young girl grow, discover her family history, and suddenly realize she’s grown really makes me think about my own daughter. Additionally, friends have recently asked me what fatherhood is like. for three years for her life, I’ve almost never had to answer this question. However, it’s come up a lot lately. I’ve surprised myself with how much I’ve had to say about it.

This leads to a moment I had today. My mom called me this morning to tell me that my grandfather died earlier in the day, the day between my wife’s birthday (yesterday) and mine (tomorrow). She told me how she was able to see him before he passed. He wanted to talk, but the oxygen mask he was wearing wouldn’t permit his words to heard. She said by the time my aunt arrived later in the evening, he was virtually in a coma.

I thought about that moment, the moment my grandfather’s daughters had to see him in the most vulnerable of states. I thought about the last moments he had to look into his daughter’s eyes. I imagined the moment I will have to do the same.

This caused me to shutter a bit, but it resonated. Yep. I got all of that from one little music video.

I write about my interests because I feel connections to people through these things. I remember sharing a Goose Island Christmas ale with my grandfather the last time we celebrated the holiday together. My sister played some Bettie Serveert on Facebook today to help her cope with the sadness. I’ve listened to nothing but Bettie Serveert all day, remembering the summer I spent in Seattle when I caught them live.

Beer and music are there throughout our lives when the good and bad happen. Sure, there are other things, but these are the things to which I connect. So, I feel as though we should insure that these moments are connected to the best in both. I want the most meaningful music and the highest quality beer to connect to the times I share with loved ones.

Does this make me more susceptible to advertisers playing the sentimentality card? Sure, but why not enjoy feeling that connection now and and again? Honestly, I’d rather play a record for sentimental reasons than because Pitchfork told me to. I’d rather remember the time I had a heart-to-heart with a friend over a good craft beer than fully sober and without a taste in my mouth that will take me back to that one moment in time…

Now ‘m rambling a bit. Appeal to my sentimentality. I’m cool with it. I like feeling and remembering, things humans do.

Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor

Posted in Records by Zac on October 19, 2011

Eric Bachman, like Stephen Malkmus, is one of my generation‘s gracefully aging rock heroes. For previous generations, that may fall upon the likes of Paul McCartney, David Bowie, or Bruce Springsteen. These musicians create a huge buzz when they’re young, creating art that is immediate and loaded with energy ideal for the times. Then, they get older and develop into better musicians along the way. Lost is some of that urgency, but they gain a certain proficiency in their craft that keeps their die-hard fans interested.

Bachman fronted one of my favorite bands of all-time, Archers of Loaf. The music he has created since their late-nineties demise is far from the blue-collar, Carolina indie that spoke to me in my 20’s. Instead, he opted for darker, more textured songs about drunks and hurt. I gravitated to this new direction as it was a chance to still hear and see one of my favorite artists. Even though Crooked Fingers albums tend to not resemble anything on a Loaf record – aside from Bachman’s growl – the live show reminded me why Loaf was so engaging.

The Crooked Fingers discography is an odd lot. The first two albums (Crooked Fingers and Bring on the Snakes) are nice companion pieces, telling stories of drunken depression and back alley romance. Red Devil Dawn brought together the bar band Bachman had created in filling the void left by Loaf, capturing the live energy for what is a powerful record. Things began to get shaky with the adventurous concept album Dignity and Shame. Projects like these either spur on huge crossovers or signal the end of a band. At the time, it seemed to mean the latter.

Then, Bachman recorded a solo record from a van in Seattle. The naked craftsmanship of To the Races helped me to appreciate his talent sans the Loaf hangover. The songs are expertly written and the subtle production and arrangements help create one of the most intimate records no one listens to.

Instead of building on the rawness of Races, Bachman continued to go down the path Dignity led him in recording the forgettable Forfeit/Fortune. The feel of this record was one of Bachman searching for something new or a direction he could embrace. Although it contained elements from his earlier Crooked Fingers projects, it had this forced aura of eclecticism and variety. Honestly, I haven’t listened to that album in a couple of years and I don’t feel the need to do it now.

Then, something unexpected happened. Archers of Loaf, the last holdout in the 90’s reunion/revival circuit, did the unthinkable and reunited for a tour this year. The original plan was to tour in support of reissues of the band’s four albums, but now there’s talk of recording. We’ll see.

An unexpected result of that reunion might be the moving Breaks in the Armor. This record is a return to the darkness enjoyed on the first two Crooked Fingers albums while somehow capturing the energy and urgency of Archers of Loaf the way Red Devil Dawn couldn’t quite achieve. Additionally, the raw beauty of To the Races is present as is an improved musician in Bachman.

What I find interesting are the similarities between Breaks in Armor and Malkmus’ Mirror Traffic. Both come out and were record in the midst of reunions with the bands that made them famous. It’s easy to detect the new-found/reinvigorated energy in both. Also, the growth in songwriting and musicianship in both men is apparent. I have been impressed with Malkmus’ new insistence of  actually singing. Likewise, Bachman stretches his range, often ditching the Neil Diamond bravado demonstrated on previous albums. Plus, both featured female vocals that add much to their sounds. Finally, Crooked Fingers and the Jicks feature some incredibly solid work on the bass that fills out their sound and reminds you that there are other people in these bands.

What was often missing from the Diamond dirges of other Crooked Fingers records was the power of Arechers of Loaf-era Bachman. He seems to have rediscovered an aggressive guitar playing alternate guitar tunings that made Loaf records so unique. I have to think this has a lot to do with his time on stage with his Loaf mates. While I’m glad to see Loaf touring, I am even more excited to hear Bachman rediscovering his inner-rocker in developing Crooked Fingers as a group with a future.

“Typhoon” opens steady and low, much like the early material, but one already detects the change in sound as Bachman allows some room for female vocals and plays like he did in Loaf’s later years. The second track, “Bad Blood,” is a straight-up rocker that reminds me so much of Archers of Loaf in the way Bachman plucks the strings, bending them to his will. The melody and drama reveal a more mature version of what Archers of Loaf used to be. The tone quiets with “The Hatchet,” similar to To the Races. It’s a beautiful track with subtle touches that flesh out the mood created.

This is followed by what is almost a pop song with a huge bassline featured out front. “The Counterfeiter” is a song Bachman might have dirged-to-death, but instead he lets the melody flow in creating a real head-bobber. This is maybe the most rewarding song of the album just for the fact that it breaks away from anything I’ve heard from Bachman. If there was ever an opportunity for a stripped-down Crooked Fingers track to make a crossover onto adult alternative stations, this would be it.

“Heavy Hours” regains the quiet established before and is yet another beautiful track, something Bachman had in him but rarely exploited. That quiet is broken a bit by the marching of “Black Candles” and its eerie resemblance to a Low song. “Went to the City” builds on the piano that’s been hinted at throughout, thrusting the instrument to the forefront as Bachman stretches his considerable vocal chops, singing yet another pop song.

Crooked Fingers used to depend on a steady movement with the low end all filled out while Bachman growled on. “Your Apocalypse”  is a track that could have fallen into that trap had it not been for a quickening of the pace, a higher octave, and some incredibly well-crafted arrangements. Even the guitar solo is uplifting.

“War Horses” opens with a buzz and steady beat that suggest dirge, but Bachman’s soaring vocals carry the day once again. “She Tows the Line” follows in a similar manner, building on the momentum that’s been created so far. “Our New Favorite” is the bluegrass ending I didn’t expect but welcomed with open arms.

Though Breaks in the Armor doesn’t attain the same sonic levels as Stephen Malkmus’ Mirror Traffic, it is no less a triumph in its demonstration of an already-accomplished artist developing, even maturing. For me, albums like these are the albums with which I want to grow old. I don’t need Wilco and their brand of dad-rock. I need my heroes to continue their growth, recalling the glory days while building toward the future. It seems as long as musicians are still hungry to break through, they will continue to avoid complacency and grow.

Breaks in the Armor is easily the most advanced and cohesive Crooked Fingers album yet. This Bachman project quickly approaching the dad-rock equivalent of an Icky Mettle or Vee-Vee. And if this is what dad-rock is going to be, I’m okay with that.

Gypsies

Posted in Intersections by Zac on July 22, 2011

The gypsy is alive and well my friends. No, I’m not talking about those who wander southern and eastern Europe in search of an easy mark. The kind of gypsy to which I’m referring is that of the craft beer and indie rock worlds. Throughout those scenes, there are examples of loner craftsman wandering between breweries and bands and creating product that defies typical industry definitions.

As is usual with these sorts of things, the indie rock gypsy is way ahead of the the craft beer variety. Musicians have been using monikers normally reserved for bands of two or more people for projects with revolving members. The freedom to make all the major creative decisions for a band without worry of the band breaking down has to be a plus. And when they want to pick up and move, there are no band members holding them back. Then, when there is a creative problem to solve, they can call on hired guns to figure them out.

Take Bright Eyes for one. BE is basically Conor Oberst (later to include Mike Mogis) and whichever friends he could round up to fill spots on his roster. His sound and dynamic have generally stayed constant, but Oberst is able to create something new each time out by simply adding a few pieces while replacing others. Oberst could have gone it alone as a solo artist (which has done and probably will continue to do), but he must have liked the comforts and support a band provides. Fewer bands are as tight as an Oberst-led group and there always appears to be a great chemistry. As a gypsy, Oberst was able to move his operation to Brooklyn from Omaha without skipping a beat. Bright Eyes was not the first ever or only gypsy act in indie rock, but it has been an extremely successful one.

Interestingly, Brian Strumke, gypsy brewer of Stillwater Artisanal Ales, revealed to me that he is a big Bright Eyes fan, but their connection as gypsies in their fields don’t end there. Both have stayed true to their hometowns. Strumke brews in Baltimore and Oberst has done most of his work in Omaha. Both have traveled to “meccas” in order to continue their crafts with some Stillwater beers being brewed in Belgium and a Bright Eyes album or two written and recorded in Brooklyn. Both men have honed their crafts into something unique that often defies categorization while still giving a nod to their influences.

The gypsy is able to break free from the constraints and tradition of his craft. The typical indie rocker is stuck with the band structure that determines how many parts to consider in every song and even how many seats to provide in the tour van. Your average brewer must consider the additional costs of running and often upgrading brewing facilities. The gypsy is not bothered by either. His band can take any shape. He can brew in this brewery or travel overseas to brew at another. The gypsy is without the typical worries that dog their more sedentary counterparts.

And why is this gypsy-fication of indie rock and craft beer on the rise? Besides the freedoms mentioned above, we live in a world that is simply more conducive to the gypsy approach. For one, we are a more global society. Due to decades of migration and multicultural educational initiative, we no longer live in a …. society. There’s a reason American brewers make Belgian styles and popular music demonstrates influences from all over the globe. Secondly, technological advancements have made it possible to coordinate projects in multiple locations. Conor Oberst can work in Brooklyn while his Omaha label Team Love GM lives here in Columbia. Brewers can easily participate in beer scenes all over thanks to social media. The world is too small for these creative types to stay in one place. Bands and breweries will just keep them down.

It’s an interesting development that has produced some pretty great results. Below are a few other gypsies I admire.

  • Crooked Fingers is the “band” name Eric Bachman (Archers of Loaf) uses. He lives out of vans and people’s couches, but he finds time to round up some players, record records, and hit the road. What started out as a side project of woe has turned into a great bar band, no matter who’s backing Bachman.
  • Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project is one of the most sought after breweries in the scene right now. I don’t know all their particulars, but they make some artful brews and incorporate a nose for design.
  • Bon Iver started out as Justin Vernon, fresh from band and girl breakups, heading out to a Wisconsin cabin one winter to record one of the most textured and heartfelt records of this century. He seems to have a regular touring band these days, but no one questions who or what Bon Iver actually is.
  • Mikkeller is the gypsy from Copenhagen we American beer geeks adore. Not surprisingly, he has a connection to Stillwater as they have collaborated on several brews, some yet to be released.
Yes, the gypsy is here to inject a little life into your tired beer cellar and record collection.
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