One of the main appeals of Crooked Fingers' 2005 album Dignity And Shame was the way the songs grew organically, starting with Eric Bachmann's plaintive rasp and free-flowing imagistic lyrics, then adding instruments, layer by layer and line by line, until the sound fit the story. Even though Bachmann's new solo album To The Races is built around acoustic guitar and minimal arrangements, the songs still begin in a plain place, then slowly tug listeners away. The album-opener "Man O'War" only adds cooing background vocals and distant piano to cascading acoustic guitar, but the way Bachmann switches up the melody as his voice gets increasingly urgent keeps the drama imminent. Listening to "Man O'War" and following its sublime curves is like disappearing through a six-and-a-half-minute hole in time.
The knock on Bachmann's post-Archers Of Loaf projects has been that they've often sounded too simple, too dour, and too dilettantish, as though he were only playing at being a disheveled troubadour, when everyone knows he's an art-punk. That was a valid criticism of the early Crooked Fingers records, and it's valid when leveled at a couple of the songs on To The Races, which come off too much like blandly conventional folk music. But that's just a couple of songs. Most of To The Races is arresting and alive, filled with little moments—a snaky violin, a warm harmonica, a lilting melody—that serve as reminders of how important the concept of "performance" can be. When Bachmann strips down a song that he could've easily turned into a rocker, like the lovely, stinging "Liars And Thieves," he's sharing the intimacy of a small room, a couple of instruments, and a man telling secrets.