In the '90s, Eric Bachmann fronted two bands: Archers Of Loaf, one of the era's most electrifying neo-punk bands, and Barry Black, an experimental instrumental collective that let Bachmann fiddle with horns and percussion. When Bachmann formed the band Crooked Fingers in 2000, some longtime fans hoped he'd reconcile art and aggression, sort of like he attempted to do on the Archers' final two albums. Instead, Bachmann started over, with a crude, somewhat dreary new sound in the barroom-poet vein of Tom Waits. With the oddball 2002 covers EP Reservoir Songs, Crooked Fingers started to lighten up and rock a little, and the band came into its own on the more nuanced 2003 album Red Devil Dawn. Now, with Dignity And Shame, Bachmann makes an album to stand with his Archers best.
The new album lacks the aggressiveness of Bachmann's early work, and it's not as wildly inventive as Barry Black's output, but it's a refinement and expansion of the Crooked Fingers sound, with sprinkles of Latin guitar and rhythm leavening the thick, love-struck balladry. Working with a full complement of percussionists, horn players, and background vocalists, Bachmann has been freed to explore, and the result is songs like "Weary Arms," a brisk note of encouragement graced with a cha-cha beat and deft steel-guitar playing. Dignity And Shame doesn't lack for highlights: the barely restrained "Destroyer," the fragile acoustic valentine "You Must Build A Fire," the careening "Valerie," the insistent history play "Andalucia." and so on. But the album's signature track is "Twilight Creeps," which may be the catchiest pop song ever to combine the principles of classical minimalism with the motor-mouthed street patter of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp.
Crooked Fingers' only slight lingering down note is Bachmann's occasionally wince-inducing lyrics. It's good that he's getting over his preoccupation with decay, but Dignity And Shame's open pleas for acceptance and love sometimes come out a little dippy, like on the otherwise-rousing "Call To Love," which belabors its. Still, Bachmann is as articulate as he is over-earnest, and he has a sense of drama. He concludes Crooked Fingers' first cracked masterpiece with the title track, a stripped-down piano ballad with an unchained melody and a string of advice on how to keep the creeps at bay while keeping a light "burning deep, burning bright, in the dark."