After seminal indie-rock heroes Archers of Loaf disbanded in 1998, frontman/songwriter Eric Bachmann immediately poured his energies into Crooked Fingers, a band that revealed Bachmann's quieter, folkier side. Instead of AOL's angular angst-and-alcohol-fueled anthems, Bachmann moved Crooked Fingers toward a more delicate and melancholic sound, even changing his singing style to a smoother, subdued croon in a range somewhere between Neil Diamond and Shane MacGowan.
Surely, this shift in dynamics alienated those accustomed to AOL's big guitar bombast. But those who related to Bachmann's tales of the drunkard's blues found the lyrical content of Crooked Fingers' first releases the self-titled debut and Bring on the Snakes, which wrapped Bachmann's themes of drinking and decay around intimate Appalachian orchestrations suited to their tastes.
On Dignity and Shame, the latest release, Bachmann dispenses with the dark, elegiac arrangements that defined earlier Crooked Fingers recordings and cranks the pop leanings and Latin affectations that flavored the previous record, Red Devil Dawn, up to 11. The addition of Australian singer Lara Meyerratken is the most welcoming element of the new record. Her siren-like voice perfectly balances out Bachmann's gruff bellow and adds dramatic thrust to his lovelorn words. On "Call to Love" she acts as a straight-talking Kirsty MacColl to his rebuffed MacGowan in Bachmann's version of "Fairytale of New York"; on "Twilight Creeps" she acts as a choral epilogue to Bachmann's cautionary tale of backbiting and dishonesty.
Cuts like "Valerie" and "Andalucia," when the album reels into fiesta-like flashes, show Bachmann at his most confident and strident moments. His skill at crafting melody out of what could be a trainwreck of influences shows his increasing dexterity as a songwriter and, perhaps more importantly, as a bandleader. Whereas earlier albums seemed tightly focused around Bach-mann's vision, the new batch of songs seems roomier, as if the other band members were allowed a wider latitude to add their own musical touches.
Undoubtedly, this evolution will once again estrange a legion of followers reluctant to accept this new melodic and open-ended path. But those willing to go along with Bachmann's more lighthearted and upbeat tone will find much to like. If anything, respect must be given to Bachmann for attempting such an extensive departure, even when he could have churned out another album full of stark, funereal dirges knowing it would be lauded as his finest. The album's title track and reflective closer perhaps best illustrate Bachmann's new direction: "You're not the same as the day that you came/You can choose dignity or shame."