The first, self-titled Crooked Fingers album is easily one of my favorite albums ever. Its songs are full of bad-luck drunks, sad-eyed barmaids, hopeless gamblers and the lurking threat of the kind of criminal company you meet when hanging out in any bar scene long enough. Front man Eric Bachmann, formerly of Archers of Loaf, had obviously been in enough dive bars and seen enough human wreckage to compose an album that manages to chronicle both the destruction drug abuse can cause and reveal why it still seems somehow romantic to drown your sorrows in drink.
Which makes it so disappointing how hit-and-miss the new Crooked Fingers album, Dignity and Shame, is. Early hype for the album hinted that it would be a departure from the last three albums, with an emphasis on more uplifting, “positive” songs. And though that’s not entirely true, it’s clear Bachmann wanted a break from writing the kind of dark and despairing songs found on previous Crooked Fingers efforts. Dignity and Shame is full of lines like “Why does everybody act so tough/ when all anybody wants is to find a friend” and “You were light revelation/ oh, I love you the best,” lines that would have sounded ironic coming from characters in Bachmann’s earlier songs. And though it’s a testament to his talent that those sentiments don’t sound as trite as they read, the problem with Dignity and Shame is that Bachmann’s positive outlook may be at war with his natural temperament. He may want to believe that “all anybody wants to find is a friend,” but I wonder if deep down he knows it’s so much more complicated.
Dignity and Shame begins with “Islero,” an instrumental song that sounds like a less epic Ennio
Morricone movie theme and that foreshadows the album’s large Latin influence. Next is “Weary Arms,” a surprisingly powerful plea for listeners to “wrap your weary arms around the ones you love,” backed by a druggy lap steel guitar and the whispered back-up vocals of Lara Meyerratken. She is also featured on the next song, “Call to Love,” dueting with Bachmann on a song that mines the same smooth-talking man vs. straight-talking woman garbage that every fifth country song is about. Bachmann is just too smart of a songwriter to stoop to using the metaphor of “calls” and “signals” to describe love. He should leave that crap to Conor Oberst. “Twilight Creeps” is a little better, but it still sounds like an exercise in writing an uplifting song, as opposed to being actually uplifting. Not to mention the arrangement, all delicately plucked guitar strings and high register piano notes, sounds like Archers of Adult Contemporary.
Not until the next two songs, “Destroyer” and “You Must Build a Fire,” does the album actually start to sound like the Crooked Fingers we know and love. Most likely this is because the arrangements are sparse and Bachmann handles all the vocals, letting his worn and weary voice chill your spine. Few singers, with the exception of Mark Lanegan and Tom Waits, can sing with the authority and maturity that Bachmann can. He’s been around the block, so he sees little point in not meaning what he says. But then “Valerie” and
“Andalucia” uncomfortably bring the album back to its Latin-flavored, I-love-you-and-things-will-get-better theme. Not to sound melodramatic, but Dignity and Shame really sounds like an album, if not at war with itself, at least in a nasty argument. Why else does Bachmann tell the namesake of the song “Valerie” that he’s “tired” and “wants something new,” and then tell his lover in “Sleep All Summer” that he “would change” for her, “but babe that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be a better man.” And on this argument continues, with the “stars are shining on you” of “Coldways” answered with the damning “Wrecking Ball.” And while most great albums are full of contradictions, what weakens Dignity and Shame is that the “uplifting” songs don’t have the weight of the darker songs. The previous Crooked Fingers albums may have been depressing, but they were also truthful and moving in a way that much of Dignity and Shame is not.
Only on the album’s final track, “Dignity and Shame,” do Bachmann’s dueling worldviews come together. The song is a warning to a vulnerable woman preyed upon by dangerous people, who will “take” her “back to places” she doesn’t want to go. Her only options, Bachmann says, are to choose dignity or shame. While that may sound like an easy choice, it’s clear that in a worst-case scenario, dignity might mean death, and shame life. It’s only unfortunate that it’s the last track could be the first track of the best Crooked Fingers album yet.