Tuesday, January 30, 2007

To The Races: Eric Bachmann's Nebraska

All he ever wanted was to be your spine

Saddle Creek is a very polarizing label that has a bad habit of alternately releasing records that put me to sleep and records that end up not just on my year-end A-lists but at the top of them. I don't know why this is. Every time I'm ready to assert Conor Oberst is a steaming pile of unlistenable ephemera, he turns around and releases I'm Wide Awake It's Morning (a barely disputed Top 10 2005 record even by Bright Eyes haters). Every time Tim Kasher retreads from the spotlight his actual band falls under accidentally to bore the world as The Good Life, he bursts from the ether tighter than ever and unleashes The Ugly Organ (the best album of 2003, footsteps this year's messy Happy Hollow will not be following in). Every time Blake Sennett shits out an Elected album he still runs back under Jenny Lewis' legs to make a More Adventurous (top 5 of 2004). And so on. For a label who's released some of the worst music ever recorded (pre-Domestica Cursive, Commander Venus), they sure know how to fluke 'em. So I raised an eyebrow when I heard Eric Bachmann's first true album under his own name (Crooked Fingers is basically him), To The Races, was being released on Saddle Creek rather than his trusty Merge. Had the portentious airiness of buddies Azure Ray got to him? They certainly got him signed after all, if Oberst and Kasher's early Archers of Loaf fetish didn't (listen to Cursive's throwaway Archers parody "Sucker You Dry"). Crooked Fingers was always an act I expected to dry up anytime; that Springsteen-Waits-'n-Diamond-goes-country thing can't last forever, can it? So I expected To The Races to end up more like Jeremy Enigk's insipid new World Waits, the "bye" album for a long-loved songwriter. I had no reason to think that, of course. Last year's silly but still charming Dignity And Shame still ended up in the bottom reaches of my A-list. I just get suspicious of songwriters who don't flag now and then to prove they're human. Bachmann's only misstep to date is the first Crooked Fingers album, when he was on the verge of his new sound and safely experimented with it. For spawning the glorious, rousing "New Drink For The Old Drunk" alone, I can't stay mad at it. Since then he's made five records, none less than honorable: 2001's beautiful Bring On The Snakes, by far more languid and fully realized than the debut, 2002's Reservoir Songs EP, five well-known, well-chosen covers that is nothing but pure pleasure, 2003's solid Red Devil Dawn which added flesh-and-blood to the mix, not to mention a brief fascination with Latin horn charts and Mariachi music, and the aforementioned Dignity And Shame, which took the Mariachi thing a step further and added female duet partners and love songs.

Anyway, it turns out that back to basics doesn't always mean return of the shit sandwich for certain reliable songwriters. To The Races is excellent, usually more exciting than Crooked Fingers (but maybe not Archers of Loaf), and never as dead as the album it's based on. Y'know, Nebraska (like Saddle Creek LOL). Springsteen does those Tom Joad-Devils & Dust type obscuro ventures so he can turn his songwriter's mind off and jam unperturbed in his delicate medium of choice, the 4-track plus guitar, the same way Sonic Youth does worthless little warm-up EPs that keep them sane while the public demands more muted pop-rock like Rather Ripped. A neat trick that keeps Bachmann's record afloat is that he adorns almost each song with one tiny sprinkle of arrangement just to keep things aesthetically intriguing. So "Home" and "To The Races" feature the violinist from DeVotchKa covering things with sweet sad strings, "Man O War" receives an otherworldly boost of girl-group harmonies, and "Carrboro Woman" features some damn Bruce-like harmonica pumping. The tunes themselves are so stark that even the excellent ones sound great with that 4th dimension. But oh are they excellent. "Little Bird" and "So Long, Savannah" are sweet little folk ballads one-upped by the Dylan-conjuring folksy vibe of "Carrboro Woman," while the title instrumental is a tango-sassy Gypsy blues that could've been on Bachmann's basement-clutter Barry Black album 11 years ago. "Home" is one of those weary traveler tunes a troubadour like this can't not have, ditto "Lonesome Warrior," a simple tune which sounds like a Red Hot Chili Peppers ballad that gradually gains momentum as if Godspeed You Black Emperor! remixed it.

But like his Crooked Fingers records, the two blatant peaks stand taller than anything surrounding (including any 2006 record). The slippery blues lament "Genie, Genie" swings like nothing Bachmann's set his voice to before, albeit harnessing the most desperation on the record: "Genie, genie come on out/won't you help poor daddy out/give me something/I'm looking for something/a million dollar bill/a lonely woman/lots of pills/give me something." Even better by is the angelic "Man O War," one of those heavenly openers like Sleater-Kinney's "The Fox" or Gogol Bordello's creeping "Sally" that sends chills down your spine. The speedy fingerpicking maintains a delicacy for almost three minutes before comes in with some breathy, staccato cooing, and a few false choruses set up the ship before Bachmann sails away on the most wondrous streak of melody my recent memory can recall, a pleading falsetto that chimes "Set adrift onto these shores/man o waaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrr/caught up in a dangling sting off the shoooooorrrrrre," the stretched notes ending on what sounds like a "wooo-hoo," coming down like a weather balloon from the soaring tufts of treetops and other pretentious shit like that. It's embarassingly unabashed beauty, that rivals both "You Can Never Leave" and "Chumming The Ocean" for anthemic significance, even "White Trash Heroes." Radio may never be ready for it; the last time something this shameless caught on was Coldplay's "Yellow" which isn't half the weeper this boy's got. But if you love power ballads, or just the breathtaking horizons of successfully sappy songwriting ("The moon doesn't mind/if the sun doesn't shine/The sea doesn't care if you're lonesome tonight"), do not pass it up.

Eric Bachmann - To The Races: A


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