Neil Young dedicated Tonight's the Night to friends who lost their ways and lives to drugs. Likewise, Crooked Fingers takes on the scourge of alcohol and crack cocaine -- though whether it's a friend, a group of friends, every skid row drunk and maintenance alcoholic, or the singer himself who suffers is unclear. That's the ingenuity of this collection from former Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann. His particular strain of pain recalls the soul mining tales of long sufferers like Young, Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix. But in those artists' blacknesses there was always a ray of light, whether it was a revelatory, joy-soaked guitar solo or one of Dave Grohl's triumphant fuck-you drum fills. But there is no redemption for the characters in Bachmann's songs. There's no "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown" to lift the listener out of the morally bankrupt reality of incessant intoxication. Tom Waits' bums had better days than this.
It's been a decade since Bachmann's Archers sprang out of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina rock scene. By combining forces with percussionist Brian Causey of Man...or Astroman? Crooked Fingers could save Bachmann from the wretched where-are-they-now bin, but the result is an even better record than any super-indie-cred could begin to suggest. The key player in "Crowned in Chrome" is doomed from the start: The hum of Causey's unusual instrument, a harmonic electrochime, precedes the line "I took a ride in the wrong direction." That sets the course for the record, which bobs and weaves at a drunkardly pace in loopy, acoustic, lo-fi orchestral mode.
"New Drink for the Old Drunk" is monumental -- incomparable to anything in the snotty indie-rock demimonde. While most artists of the same ilk seem to will their tunes into obscurity and terribleness, Bachmann can't help but lay down the best possible version of the best possible song, and though he can sound like a parody of notorious drunk vocalists, his instrument is its own grade of sandpaper. The refrain in "Black Black Ocean" leaves zero doubt as to the source of misery: "Drowning on this drunken sea/ Black black ocean creeping tide/ Rise over me and then leave me to die." Maybe out of context it sounds as lame as Trent Reznor or Courtney Love. But as part of a suite in which people sleep in their own sick, it's uneasy listening.
Winding down with four pensive numbers, metaphorical and literal meditations on violence and gore, the album takes a disturbing turn when female characters are introduced, creating a wholly unique class of demons. Maybe it's because alcohol and drugs are equal-opportunity destroyers, but whether she is the dope and drink itself, the cause or the victim of its wickedness, it's distressing all the same. The acoustic ballad "A Little Bleeding," signs off with a British pub chant reminding the listener one last time that for these folk, the answer lies in a bottle. Maybe Bachmann had a friend who lost his way, or maybe he's done his own research. But if there's anything here that remotely resembles redemption, it's that the songwriter, real or imagined, lived to make this record.