Crooked Fingers

Dignity and Shame (Merge)

For a while, Eric Bachmann seemed in danger of painting himself into a corner with his Crooked Fingers project. The erstwhile Archers of Loaf frontman looked to be hell-bent on exploring self-abuse from every conceivable angle: the songs on 2000's Crooked Fingers, 2001's Bring on the Snakes, and 2003's Red Devil Dawn were populated by desperate losers destroying themselves with strong drink and soul-crushing relationships. Dignity and Shame isn't precisely a great leap forward, thematically. Many of its songs, such as "You Must Build a Fire" and "Coldways", cover similarly bleak terrain. Bachmann's humour also remains black. The tough-talking wastrel who pledges his undying love to "Valerie" ("I don't need those peepshow girls no more/No, I only want you") sounds like the same drunken Romeo who cooed "I know you would never cheat with anyone but me" on Red Devil Dawn's "Sweet Marie".

On the other hand, the new disc finds considerably more light at the end of the psychological tunnel. It's as if Bachmann's sad-sack characters have suddenly realized that what they're really seeking in those darkened saloons and squalid walkups is not oblivion but some semblance of happiness. As the singer ponders on "Twilight Creeps": "Why does everybody always act so tough when all anybody wants is to find a friend?"

Where Dignity and Shame really deviates from the old Crooked Fingers template, though, is in the relatively light touch Bachmann has applied to the arrangements. The strings and ambient loops that lent such a sombre tone to earlier Crooked Fingers efforts are gone, replaced by chiming guitars, glimmering lap steel, and spare piano. The Latin influences hinted at on Red Devil Dawn come to the fore on the album-opening "Islero", which boasts enough Spanish guitar and mariachi trumpet to please any Calexico fan. Bold and tuneful, "Call to Love" and the aforementioned "Valerie" are the closest Bachmann has ever come to straight-up pop songs. Australian singer Lara Meyerratken (known for her collaborations with the likes of Ben Lee and Luna) further lightens things up with her lilting contributions to several songs, including the languid, country-tinged duet "Sleep All Summer".

Don't think for a second that Bachmann is losing his edge, mind you. He remains one of the American underground's most insightful and incisive tunesmiths. Dignity and Shame is merely the sound of a master expanding his palette.