Crooked Fingers – Dignity in the arts
“I remember thinking, ‘If I like this music, all my friends in school are going to think I’m weird. Do I really want to do that? To like weird shit?’ Of course, I did. And everything was fine. The world comes around.”
Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers looks good. Not necessarily in a People magazine “50 Sexiest” list sort of way, but as he nurses a beer in a Seattle tavern on a January afternoon, there’s no denying it: Bachmann, 34, looks much cuter than he did a decade ago, when he fronted the alt-rock combo Archers Of Loaf.
“Maybe it’s my new glasses,” he suggests. A couple of gay male friends helped him pick out the pair he’s wearing today, featuring rimless, narrow, rectangular lenses. “You’ve got to get the right frames for your face.”
No, that’s not it. The specs are dandy, but the source of his heightened appeal is nothing so superficial. When Bachmann talks about Dignity And Shame, the fourth Crooked Fingers full-length, the joy he took in writing and recording the finest record of his career illuminates his face. The act of creation has left its traces of its beauty, however subtle, on his visage.
“I wanted to lighten up a little bit,” says Bachmann, smiling, apropos of the lyrical and musical tone of Dignity And Shame, released February 22 on Merge Records. “It’s not even just that I wanted to I had to.”
The first lines he sings on the record are, “Come out now and wrap your weary arms around the ones you love” (from “Weary Arms”). The title track closes the twelve-song set on an equally hopeful note: “You’ve got to carry your heart like a torch in the night/Little keeper of light burning deep burning bright in the dark.”
“I feel like people think the old Crooked Fingers records are dark,” he says. “That’s the big misconception. Certainly they’re dark, but I don’t think they’re negative. I don’t want to be negative. And I never thought that was what I was doing.
“Those records are supposed to be uplifting in a way,” he continues. “You just have to sift through dark stuff to get there.” Sure enough, if you listen closely to Crooked Fingers self-titled 2000 debut, or its follow-ups, Bring On The Snakes (2001) and Red Devil Dawn (2003), themes of hope and redemption are evident. Troubled anti-heroes admit their mistakes and failures: “You’re better than the world you live in,” says the “Boy with (100) Hands” to the object of his affection; “There are good things now coming your way,” Bachmann promises the beleaguered titular figure in “Angelina”.
But Dignity And Shame, Bachmann’s first record since he moved to Seattle two years ago, requires less, if any, digging. “This record is really direct,” he says. “When you’re singing a song called ‘Dignity And Shame’ or ‘Call To Love’, that’s very straightforward. There’s no darkness; it’s ‘Gimme a hug, buddy.’ Which is a more mainstream approach, but, because of my musical past, for me to do that was a weird move. And it was much harder. But after those first three records, this was the perfect time for me to be sentimental.”
The heart of Crooked Fingers’ fourth album is the eighth song, “Andalucia”. A passionate number propelled by driving percussion and soaring vocals (one can easily imagine histrionic ’60s crooner Scott Walker having a U.K. chart hit with it), it tells the story of Manuel Rodriguez Sanchez, better known as Manolote, the man revered to this day as Spain’s greatest bullfighter. In 1947, what was to be the final year of his professional career — his longtime girlfriend, the actress Antonita Lupe Sino, desperately wanted him to retire and settle down — he was gored by a bull named Isolero (from whence comes the title of the Latin-flavored instrumental that kicks off Dignity And Shame, with its rousing passe doble trumpet line and subtle conga rhythms).
“I don’t know if it was Hemingway, but someone once said bullfighting is a huge test of dignity,” Bachmann says. Indeed, after the initial ballet of the conflict, the death strike (at least on the part of the matador) must be dealt with grace and agility. Concepts surrounding dignity and shame, the teaching of existential philosopher and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl — these were the notions that bubbled in Bachmann’s brain as the words and chords of “Andalucia” flowed through him.
“That song came out of nowhere, and two hours later it was done,” he recalls. “So then I thought, ‘OK, the characters in every song have to somehow deal with the issue of living with dignity. All the songs were written in that mindset.”
Bachmann made one other decision, a more conscious one, that firmly shaped the final outcome of Dignity And Shame. “I wanted to make a record that was sexier, and more open. So, long before the record was conceived, I started asking, ‘How do you go about doing that?'” One answer, he decided, was to include duets. “Listening to Richard and Linda Thompson, or Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, that music is real, and also, really sexy,” he observes.