Crooked Fingers – Breaks in the Armor
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.