CROOKED FINGERS: DIGNITY AND SHAME ('05 MERGE)

By Aaron Stein

I’m going to get this out of the way quickly. I am presently making the requisite Neil Diamond comparison that is necessary in all Crooked Fingers reviews. Yes, Eric Bachmann’s voice is eerily reminiscent of Diamond’s sonorousness. Bachmann isn’t so much the front man of Crooked Fingers as much as he is Crooked Finger, but his voice goes beyond a kitschy replica and immediately becomes the centerpiece of each Bachmann song. On his new album Dignity and Shame, this deep, smoke-puff vocal is so close you can smell his breath. This constant presence serves to amplify the small sounds in the background, making some of the pieces downright gorgeous and others a bit tedious.

There are three musical threads weaving their way through the album, occasionally overlapping but more often braiding their way individually from beginning to end. The first theme is a sort of mariachi pop, laced with crisp, nearly-flamenco guitar and jubilant trumpets. This is in stark contrast to the increasingly popular and ever-moody pedal steel guitar, which adds emotion each time it slithers its way around Bachmann’s lyrics. Finally, there is a bit of rocking out buried deep beneath the self-importance – you know, electric guitar, drums, a little volume, that kind of thing. In most cases, these provide a counterpoint to the underlying foundation of that voice. It seems that several songs start out similarly with Bachmann singing with a single, simple piano riff as backing. As the song develops, the aforementioned musical directions fill in under, over, and around the vocals.

Strange, then, that the entire album is set up by the disc-opening “Islero,” which is a simple instrumental with the Spanish tinge of that mariachi thread. It is a beautiful understated piece that could be the beginning of something momentous. The album meets up with that standard occasionally, with the rollicking storytelling of “Andalucia” and the picture-perfect singer/songwriter lilt of “You Must Build A Fire.” The strengths are in the contrasts and in the surprises. When “Destroyer” rends itself in half, literally demolishing the pussyfooting of its beginnings with an off-kilter rock to close out, a plain old electric guitar feels fresh. The pedal steel is another highlight, the emotions on the proverbial sleeve – its full range is felt all over, with moans, whines, tears, and ecstatic yelps. Perhaps the best song is “Twilight Creeps” – one of several duets with Lara Meyerratken on the album – as it is probably the only song where voice, accompaniment, lyrics, and self-importance mesh comfortably. In many places along the way, particularly as it wears on, the sound becomes complacent and downright pedestrian. By the end of the CD, the listener can be forgiven for thinking he’s heard the closing tracks before – they don’t run into each other as much as sound too similar. In the end, Crooked Fingers has made a decent album, but nothing like the work of art it seems to pretend to be.

JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 10/21/05]

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