Crooked Fingers

Red Devil Dawn (Merge)

Overheard at a bar in the wee hours of New Year's Eve: "Well, the thing about the floor is, there's nowhere left for me to fall." Eric Bachmann, late of Archers of Loaf and now the Tom Waits-lite croon--er--croaker of Crooked Fingers, might have written that line. As the front man for Archers, Bachmann wasn't cheerful, but his jaundiced worldview was shot through with so much bombast that the band carved out a singular niche as indie rock's best and only fist-pumping depressives. (The bottom's fine! Come on down!) But the finger-picking barroom blues on the eponymous Crooked Fingers debut laid bare the depth of Bachmann's inconsolable misery.

That's not a bad thing, but it can be a dead end; sad-man balladeers have to come up with new angles on the trip from bad to worse to avoid becoming the aural equivalent of a game of "oh, this is horrible--taste it." The genre's standard-bearers--Leonard Cohen, Smog's Bill Callahan, Waits--keep their work fresh by sheer force of personality, attended by musical invention.

With Red Devil Dawn, his third Crooked Fingers effort, Bachmann scores on the latter half of that equation. Sure, first track "Big Darkness" ushers listeners into his world with a parable about a "hero" coming to snuff out the sun, nailing the mood to the wall with the line, "Even the vultures have moved on." Yet Bachmann pumps Prozac from lush, open arrangements and instrumentation dramatically atmospheric, even on the sparest tracks, steering at times toward Mercury Rev's spaced-out laments and, at others, Jim O'Rourke's plain old beautiful space outs.

Just as the glorifying trumpets that open "Sweet Marie" and violins that sing it out seem to rescue the song from its inauspicious first lines ("Drinking sparkling wine and sniffing glue") and inspire the poem about the fervor of love that it becomes, so it seems Bachmann has seen the path from the gutter to the stars in his music itself. Beauty beats nihilism every time.

 
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