Eric Bachmann doesn't like to think of himself as a singer-songwriter. Ask him about the idea, and he'll probably rasp himself into a fiery cul-de-sac about how the very idea of singing about your problems is nothing but self-indulgent whining. That if you're singing in the first place, you are, by definition, expurgating some scary, hairy corner of your soul, so complaining about how much whatever you think sucks sucks is aggravatingly redundant. "I'm so concerned--almost to the point of being obsessive--about not being that way that I don't know if I could write a song where I was bitching about myself, because I am just so appalled when I see people do it," he might say.
Thing is, for all his heated condemnation of the tradition--and despite the decade he spent leading high-octane indie rockers Archers of Loaf--Bachmann seems to be taking pains to prove himself exactly what he hates. How else to explain Crooked Fingers, the solo project he unveiled to the world a little more than a year ago with an eponymous album full of cleanly picked electric guitar and dark, confessional yarns containing many uses of the words "I" and "you"? How else to explain the retreat from the Archers' guitar-as-weapon-of-mass-destruction blitzkrieg toward an elegant, if-not-subtle-at-least-supple brand of back-lit pop? How else, in short, to explain the number of drunk people who populate this guy's songs? If you're Bachmann, you might say it's just changing direction.
"How many frickin' people do you interview that say the same stupid shit?" he asks on the phone from his home in Atlanta, a day before heading out on a tour that will bring him to Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton this week, opening for Jonathan Richman. "'We always want to do different things; we want to push ourselves,' and all this bullshit? But I do." Bachmann speaks in a gruff, hurried tone that lets you know he's aware of the contradiction lying at the center of his post-Archers work--that, at least on a structural level, this is material just a bad metaphor or two away from the type of maudlin navel-gazing he so openly loathes. But he also knows that that's where things get interesting, that shedding the half-stacked smoke screen the Archers' rockist façade provided him is the act of contrition indie rock's sensitive-guy safe space tacitly demanded.
Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios
March 9. Jonathan Richman headlines.
That's why Bring on the Snakes, his brand-new Crooked Fingers disc, brims with a hesitant, creeping pathos--the kind you'd expect from a guy who calls the worst version of himself a "dumbass"--and resounds past the usual acoustic-guy reach (i.e., a couple of Xanax and a night or two behind closed doors). Here's a guy pulling an Elliott Smith but feeling guilty about it, making records about problems that are themselves problems. Welcome to fire and rain v188.8.131.52. Please check your postmodernist (dumb)ass at the door.
"I dislike talking about songs too much because you start sounding like a whiny fuck," Bachmann says, pointing to VH1's Behind the Music series as an example of the malaise drawn in broad strokes. "It's just so funny, 'cause this guy's a multimillionaire, and he's talking about how he had this minor problem with cocaine. Do you know how many people would die to have that little problem you're having with cocaine and just not have to worry about paying their bills right now?"
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The answer's quite a few, which is why, somehow, Bachmann's filled Bring on the Snakes with stories about drunks and misanthropes and fumbled attempts at love and/or sex and/or the gray area in between. As on Crooked Fingers (basically this record plus or minus a few instrumental flourishes), he's a compelling storyteller, able to render his familiar character sketches in unfamiliar rags and dress up petty injustices as Grand Guignol horror stories. "You were a fine young thing crammed in your tight red vinyl jeans," he croaks on "The Rotting Strip," the album's opener. "I was a third-rate going nowhere burning for nothing to do." That's as self-pitying as anything Aidan Moffat, the beautiful loser who fronts the unapologetically downcast Scottish band Arab Strap, has come up with, so what gives? How can Bachmann purport to hate the "whiny fuck" when he's making his own tea-potted tempests?
"Well, I don't really view the songs as depressing," he replies, a little offended that the question's been asked. "I don't even consider myself depressive or anything like that. I think the songs are about specific people, and it just happens to be that it's not as interesting to write about when somebody's having a good time." He laughs because he knows it's true, and continues. "I don't want to make this cliché out of it, but essentially, all the songs I write are about assholes that I like. They're people that I know who I like for some reason when they have a lot of evil things about their personality." Hmm, an unsentimental, observational approach to an often bathos-plagued form. Interesting.
Listening to Bring on the Snakes, it's not so hard to buy Bachmann's story, to believe that this guy isn't looking for your sympathy but just trying to lift a gigantic rock that's covering a slimy patch of human moss--you know the kind, where bugs and ants and worms scatter, trying desperately to avoid the light. Or maybe he's making up songs about those moments in movies such as Trees Lounge, where someone opens a door to a bar in the middle of the day--not a cool, hip place where young, good-looking people hang out, but a decrepit countertop with old, ugly people sitting staring straight ahead. And maybe someone turns to the door and gives a look that makes you wish you hadn't opened the door 'cause you didn't really want to see the old, ugly people sitting staring straight ahead, and you know they didn't want to see you, and there's a weird moment where everyone knows that everyone there is just themselves at different points along the same line, and you close the door. And Bachmann stops singing and tells you that it wasn't a movie, and he's got two albums and a couple of broken arms to prove it.
He palpitates a little. "I don't like to write from negative energy," he says with a breath. "It's sort of like that whole AC/DC thing, where you know what you're good at, so you do what you're good at."