With Eric Bachmann’s old band Archers of Loaf reuniting this year (to the delight of indie rock fans old and young), it might be easy to forget Crooked Fingers amidst this wave of nostalgia for the heyday of ’90s college rock.
But that would be ignoring just how much work Bachmann has put into Crooked Fingers over the past decade-plus, and how good he can be with this outfit. What started as essentially a solo venture has grown lusher and more expansive with each release — from the murky hiss of Crooked Fingers to the shadowy folk of Red Devil Dawn to the full-band pop leanings of the last effort Forfeit/Fortune. That last record, complete with a pop-gem duet with Neko Case, was a curious turn, a bid for Crooked Fingers as a big honking band, particularly in the wake of Bachmann’s more isolated solo record, To the Races.
It also felt a bit ill-fitting though, the songs dipping their toe in a rock heft that Archers always embraced fully and with a snarl. So maybe he needed Archers of Loaf again to keep Crooked Fingers going, because Breaks in the Armor is a return to the leaner sound of his older records, but the songwriting remains fresh. These songs hone biting darkness to a sharp point, but Bachmann always shines just enough light off the blade’s edge. That mix of darkness without despair and his knack for keen details has always made Bachmann a fantastic songwriter, and this record finds him at the top of his bittersweet game.
This is an album about damage, both internal and external. There’s bad blood and cold blood here, eyes are little more than black holes, death is all around. “You’ll probably get the cancer,” a forturn teller predicts on “Bad Blood, “…you’ll surely die alone.” If that weren’t bad enough, there are typhoons blowing around these songs, storms brewing. People are “bracing for all hell.” They’re also isolated at every turn. On the somber and beautiful “Heavy Hours,” the city is empty and cold, covered in “the snow and the grime,” while on “Went to the City” the people who mill around the bars and clubs feel suffocating. Surrounded or alone, people can’t seem to find connections.
Or can they? Bachmann’s often bitter-seeming songs always end up working because there’s some resilience behind them, some sincere search for a sliver of hope. “Heavy Hours” is sullen, beer-tired and woozy, but the narrator finds solace in the end in the shallow rhythm of his partner’s half-drunken breathing. Someone is there, equally exhausted sure, but still, there they are. Elsewhere, it’s about stepping gingerly towards making amends. “If I loved you before, I can love you again,” Bachmann says on the spare “Hatchet,” over an uneasy, scuffed-record crackle, even as he won’t back down. “I meant what I said,” he sings with a steely persistence. “I mean what I said.”
The search for healing here, for a better day, involves no compromise. In these songs, people take their lumps, get stuck through those cracks in their protection, but the wounds — according to Bachmann — heal stronger. Breaks in the Armor sounds hardened at the edges, hardscrabble and lean. There are drums but virtually no cymbals, Bachmann’s gruff voice backed with the ghostly shadow of Liz Durrett’s voice. Songs like “The Counterfeiter” charge forward with tightly coiled purpose, a kind of rock song for a folk singer, while closer “Our New Favorite” rests on just acoustic guitar and the faint tapping of a foot. There are moments of expansion, particularly on the grinding layers of “Went to the City” and the static-filled close of “Your Apocalypse.” But mostly the album deals in direct sounds, in the power of one guitar, one drum, one piano, and the arresting space they create around themselves. “War Horses” is the best example, a song that seems huge not for the number of sounds it makes, but for the negative space around them. When cymbals finally do come into this song on the towering chorus, they feel like a revelation, a true breakthrough in an album of hushed restraint.
It’s all spare and often dark, but Breaks in the Armor is a surprisingly comforting album in its cloudy way. When Bachmann closes the record telling us that, behind those black-hole eyes, that “there’s just an overcrowded room waiting for its turn to lose,” he’s not resigning himself to failure. He’s looking for the next break, the next chance for that crack to knit itself together stronger. In those quiet closing notes, in the angelic wisp of Durrett’s voice off in the distance as the album fades into silence, Bachmann leaves us that cautious, sobering hope to find.