Since they heyday of the early 1990s, when he came out swinging with Archers of Loaf’s scathingly angry Icky Mettle, Eric Bachmann has been one of the best lyricists in indie rock. Through four albums with Archers, he continued to deliver anthem-tirades on ex-lovers, asshole friends, “the scene,” so on and so forth — all to decreasingly frenzied aplomb. Not as good as the last one, they’d say. But in retrospect, Bachmann was, in a sense, growing up on record, and ultimately calming down. After Archers gradually faded away, Bachmann regrouped to form Crooked Fingers, delivering ten first-rate, subdued drinking anthems on that debut, not to mention helping to usher the banjo into popular use in indie rock.
Now, notably after four Crooked Fingers records, Bachmann has reinvented himself once again, having shed a full band and a moniker, with this delicate and controlled collection. Apparently written while he chose to live in the back of his touring van for a Northwestern summer and then recorded in an Outer Banks hotel room, Bachmann comes at us simple and sincere. And it seems this solitude has focused him as a songwriter. As he’s been gradually freeing himself of the constraint of bitterness, he’s become increasingly earnest, though in no way to a fault. Here he manages to write ten tracks on loss, hope, and love without segueing into anger, spite or cliché. It’s quite a feat, really.
Most of these tracks contain simple but stunning guitar work, while Bachmann’s gravely yet tender Springsteen-meets-Neil Diamond voice features elegant backing from Miranda Brown on vocals (“Man ‘O War”) or Devotchka’s violinist Tom Hagerman (“Home”). Later, his combination of piano on “Lies and Thieves” and harmonica on “Carrboro Woman” perfectly accent his somber, folk tone. For all singer-songwriters, lyrics take the front seat, and on To the Races, Bachman delivers us some of his most achingly sad and reflective work yet.
As with Icky Mettle and then with Crooked Fingers, Bachmann once again has provided a taut and startling proper debut; his writing feels completely reenergized. Time will tell if this is a one-off solo record, but if it’s not, and Crooked Fingers returns, I can only hope this reinvigoration finds its way into that band’s next album. Maybe the rest of the band can all move into the back of the van with him for a summer.