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Crooked Fingers - Dignity And Shame

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Artist: Crooked Fingers

Album: Dignity And Shame

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 17, 2005

The front cover of Dignity and Shame, Eric Bachmann’s third release as Crooked Fingers, is a portrait of the legendary Spanish bullfighter Manolete. Perhaps the most famous bullfighter ever to die in the ring, Manolete’s death in 1947 was a shock to his fans throughout the world, and, indicative of the reverence still afforded him, the Museum of Bullfighting in Cordoba was named in his honor. Whatever inspiration the story of Manolete offered Bachmann as he wrote the material on Dignity and Shame must have been indirect, as it can only be seen on a few songs. You could interpret some of the love songs as accounts of Manolete’s relationship with actress Lope Sino; “Islero,” the Spanish-flavored instrumental that opens Dignity and Shame, certainly has something to do with the story (Islero was the name of the bull that gored Manolete). Dignity and Shame is not a concept album, however. Rather than recounting a semi-famous incident in an 11-song cycle, this album’s historical bent instead lends gravity to the same kind of singer-songwriter material Bachmann’s always released through the Crooked Fingers moniker.

In a recent interview, Bachmann claimed to have drawn inspiration for Crooked Fingers from Americana legends like the Carter Family. That desire for simple, timeless melodies certainly differs from what Bachmann did with his former band, Archers of Loaf, where melodies arose from layers of distortion and noise. The melodies on Dignity and Shame, in contrast, are straightforward and completely unadorned. The piano is the primary instrument on most of the songs, accompanied only by Bachmann’s gravelly baritone. Lara Meyerratken appears as a duet partner on two tracks, and she pretty much follows Bachmann’s lead: understated, careful not to force anything. Only one song – the single “Call to Love” – works as a full-bore rocker, although even there the hook consists of a simple lead guitar run, rather than any elaborate heroics. “Destroyer,” which begins as a piano ballad, has a few minutes of meandering feedback as a deliberate counterpoint to Bachmann’s delicate melody. Musically, Dignity and Shame will probably be thrown in with Americana; and while it doesn’t owe much to either Americana or alt-country, it does share a fondness for simplicity.

The key to the arrangements is Bachmann’s voice; euphemistically, it’s a voice that has “a lot of character,” or, more plainly, sounds gravelly but remains an easy listen. Bachmann writes lyrics suited to the sound of his voice – he often narrates from the perspective of the odd-man-out in a love triangle, and while not exactly anti-romantic, his stories of love and cuckoldry are at least tough-minded. The title track sums up the advice he’s offering: “There’s a man in your hand / He’s got nothing good to sell you / And he’s smashing a violin against your bed.” The destroyer in “Destroyer” is love – the metaphor can be easily grasped – and it says something about the lyric sheet that the line “and resign your heart today / to get blown away” that ends the final verse of the song is one of the more optimistic sentiments.

Despite its tragic inspiration and morose outlook, Dignity and Shame doesn’t sound that dark. This is not an album to accompany a prolonged spell of moping. A dramatic, often fascinating work, it inspires repeated and careful listening, and stands alongside the best of Bachmann’s work.

By Tom Zimpleman

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