Crooked Fingers – Dignity in the arts
“I’ve never written songs like ‘Call To Love’ before,” he continues, referencing a track on Dignity And Shame, “because they were really opening and welcoming to the listener, which is a tough thing to do.” To realize his goal, he expanded his circle of Crooked Fingers collaborators (which has rotated from record to record) to include a vocal foil.
A number of possibilities were considered: Linda Thompson, Emmylou Harris, Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor of Saddle Creek recording act Azure Ray (Bachmann has produced and played on most of their records). In the end, he passed on all of them. “This album was so different, we wanted to start with a clean slate,” says Bachmann. “We decided, let’s get someone we don’t even know.”
Ultimately, at the suggestion of his manager, Bachmann went with Lara Meyerratken, an Australian singer who has worked with Luna, Ben Lee and Nada Surf. (Sarah Shannon, formerly of Velocity Girl, further enhances several cuts by quietly shadowing one or both singers, most notably on “Weary Arms”; her discrete contributions are credited as “ghost vocals.”)
On “Call To Love”, as Bachmann pleads, “Won’t you hear my heart?” over a rocking guitar riff, Meyerratken coolly retorts, “No heart receives love when it’s broken down.” On the other hand, “Sleep All Summer” finds the pair yearning to renew and restore a fractured romance, and ends with them singing, in unison, “Why won’t you fall back in love with me?”
Eric Bachmann grew up shuttling between divorced parents. His mother has been married four times, his father twice. “In every incarnation of family, whichever house I was living at, I was always the youngest,” he reflects. (He has one biological brother and a slew of step-siblings.) He pauses. “I was also always the biggest. That was interesting.”
Looking back on his youth, Bachmann can pinpoint several episodes where he realized the life-changing power of music. He loved Prince’s 1984 film Purple Rain and would dance around his bedroom to the album of the same name for hours. “I was also a huge fan of Men At Work and Thomas Dolby, that whole era of MTV,” he admits. One morning, in the wee small hours, he flipped on the cable channel — “hoping to see the ‘Who Can It Be Now?’ video” — and was startled by what he discovered instead.
“It was this weird band, with long hair, and some guy singing way off-key, but it sounded great,” he recalls. “It was Reckoning-era R.E.M.” Bachmann, 13 at the time, was captivated. “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.”
Country music also supplied a couple of pivotal moments in the formation of Bachmann’s aesthetic, although its influence wouldn’t be evident until Archers Of Loaf disbanded (circa 1998). When Bachmann was 10, he caught a mixed bill of Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Lee Greenwood and the Oak Ridge Boys at the Iowa State Fair. “My jaw was hanging open for an hour and a half,” he admits.
A few years later, while visiting his mother in Florida, he became fixated on her copy of Charlie Rich’s 1973 Billy Sherrill-produced countrypolitan classic Behind Closed Doors. “I was so enamored with that record,” he marvels. “I would just listen to it, over and over, and go, ‘How is he doing that?’
“Those are just little moments of enlightenment,” he surmises. But they drove home a singular point: If you’re going to be an artist, “you’ve got to kick some ass.”
Starting with their 1993 debut, Icky Mettle, Archers Of Loaf did just that. The album was a favorite on mid-’90s college radio; the quartet’s sound was harder and more angular than that of their North Carolina contemporaries Superchunk, yet still accessible. They released a handful of subsequent discs, had a brief distribution deal with Elektra Records, and toured constantly. But lack of clear direction prevented them from ever breaking out of the underground.
“The problem with the Archers was that nobody accepted the role of leader,” Bachmann suggests in retrospect. “One of us would want to do things one way, someone else would want to do them another. We would never just say, ‘We’re doing this.’ So we wouldn’t make decisions. Period. And then nothing happens. Or worse, bad things happen, because other people make decisions for you. But that’s not an issue now, because I’m in charge of everything.”
Actually, that’s only partly true. Even though he’s still the sole writer, Bachmann readily admits that Dignity And Shame is the first Crooked Fingers album in which the participating musicians played a prominent role in shaping song arrangements.