Many of us mourned the passing of indie rock legends, the Archers of Loaf in the late '90s, despite the fact that the band name remains one of my least favorite in history. But, two years later, Eric Bachman, the group's frontman, formed Crooked Fingers—at the time, a stripped-down solo project built around Bachman's excellent, unique guitar-playing and excellent, unique gruff, bear-found-a-recording-studio voice. Since that first self-titled release, Bachman and company have release four more full-length albums and a superb 2002 EP of covers, Reservoir Songs, that includes Prince's "When You Were Mine" and Queen/Bowie's "Under Pressure". In that time, Bachman has taken Crooked Fingers from a solo project to a group with a freeform, rotating roster, and, most recently, to a more solid band with more or less permanent members. And it shows in the sound of the band over the past three or so records. 2005's Dignity and Shame presented a cohesive sound that mixed horn arrangements, picked nylon string guitar lines, and strong, lonely piano parts to create a new Americana that really stood out on its own.
Now, with the October 2008 release of the group's fifth album, Crooked Fingers further develops that sound, delving far into the sounds of both an old and new American landscape. The album isn't as immediately accessible as many of the older ones and doesn't have the tracks that stand out right away as the ones you know you'll be listening to non-stop, like "Call to Love" or "New Drink for the Old Drunk" from past releases. That said, as a whole, the album plays well from beginning to end and individual songs grow on you. Many of the songs bring the somewhat ridiculous image of a Bachman-fronted flamenco band to mind right off the bat, including "Phony Revolutions", "Sinisteria", and "¡No Me Lo Des!", sung in spanish. On other songs though, the dusty Mexican village feel is more subtly infused into the music and adds a nice uniqueness to the arrangements. The album opener, while a great, simple, catchy number, is impossible to listen to without thinking of 80's-era Springsteen, complete with a crazy sax solo just past the one minute mark. And the synth-heavy closer, "Your Control" (a duet with Neko Case) also feels pretty 80's Boss, in a great but undeniable way.
Overall, especially for past Crooked Fingers fans, the album is recommended and we give it 3 out of 5 Caws. Though it's more heavily-produced than some of the more recent, raw-sounding records, it expands well on their sound. More than anything, I think it shows great promise for records to come down the road. And we have to give them high marks for choosing to release the album entirely on their own, amiably parting ways with long-time heroes to the world of independent music, Merge Records. Bachman also made the choice to avoid selling the record at large chain stores and instead is making it available only online and through a little over 20 hand-picked, independent retailers. So that's pretty cool.
Listen to "Phony Revolutions" at stereogum.com here.