Crooked Fingers Breaks In the Armor

[Merge; 2011]

Styles: Indie rock, neo-Americana
Others: Archers of Loaf, The Veils, Tom Waits, Okkervil River

For a musician who appears to be in a constant state of flux, a record as consistent and memorable as Breaks In the Armor is nothing if not an unqualified triumph. After writing a batch of songs during self-imposed musical exile in Taiwan, Eric Bachmann kept what became Crooked Fingers’ sixth full-length in his back pocket, meanwhile reuniting Archers of Loaf for a smattering of shows (and an upcoming tour).

If it were restlessness or a desire for a more assertive sound that drove Bachmann to reconvene the iconic slacker-rock band, the same boldness informs Breaks In the Armor, albeit tempered by a mature lyrical sensibility and a heavy dose of doomsaying, sure to satisfy romantic idealism and hipster schadenfreude alike. Although the simpler moments recall Neil Young-levels of earnestness, most of the album is shot through with the (somewhat) modern equivalents of Tom Waits’ dark vignettes of Americana.

“Black Candles” begins with a tonally ambiguous intro before launching into an exercise in gothic honky-tonk that works better than it sounds like it would, except for the prosaic hook, “black candles burning in the kerosine rain.” “Went to the City” is propelled by a Spoon-like spare rhythmic drive and a chunky eighth-note piano motor that gets repeated a few tracks later in “She Tows the Line.”

But the last three tracks are definitely the strongest chunk of a thoroughly consistent album. “War Horses” is, I think, the album’s centerpiece, similar to the way “So Come Back, I am Waiting” blew Black Sheep Boy way out of the confines of its bildungsroman narrative. An anthemic, slowed-down number with a very strange mood that I can only describe as hopeless solidarity, it begins by “holding hands at the border,” then crescendos to stop-time chords that don’t feel like chords so much as volleys from a firing squad: “Bracing for all hell/ For the century will shoot us down/ Breaks in the armor/ It’s too much for us to turn back now.”

And when the smoke clears, we’re brought to the brilliant, encompassing “She Tows the Line.” It begins with a Springsteen-esque encapsulation of a girl sitting by the arcade anonymously getting high and gives way to more universal insights about being forgotten: “We’ll rise and we’ll go/ So they never know/ We even came here at all.” And to stay on the Springsteen kick for a sec, if The Boss was an evangelist for all the open-road aspirations of New Jersey youth, Bachmann is the philosopher king returned to the Cave with nothing but brokenhearted insights. He invites us to “Come here and count the times/ We’ve been leaving” and derides the impulsive youth heading out for a night on the town “like they all have some place to go.”

Whether intentionally or simply a product of the songwriting process, there are a few internal parallelisms that reward multiple listenings. Elements of “Heavy Hours” are reprised in “Our New Favorite,” a slice of Nebraska-like sparseness and beauty. But there’s a certain timeliness in his accusations of “A scam of scandals/ Housed in empty contraband/ Such a sad shame/ We got nothing for their slaughter.”

Other reviewers have commented on the album’s impeccable sequencing, and they’re totally right. After “War Horses,” the last two tracks are a perfect denouement that recall earlier tracks but don’t retread any musical ground. Breaks In the Armor ranks among the best Crooked Fingers albums. But constructing a web of associations — really the stock-in-trade of critics — between Bachmann’s other work, music in general, politics, The State of Art, or some other conceit can only go so far. Arrogant as this undoubtedly sounds, I felt like I deserved this album. As someone who cares about music, who flatters himself to think that he has a pulse on new things, it’s a joy to encounter something that feels so whole, both in itself and in how perfectly it fills that little void I never knew was there.

    01. Typhoon
    02. Bad Blood
    03. The Hatchet
    04. The Counterfeiter
    05. Heavy Hours
    06. Black Candles
    07. Went to the City
    08. Your Apocalypse
    09. War Horses
    10. She Tows the Line
    11. Our New Favorite

Links: Crooked Fingers - Merge