To the Races
ard to say we didn’t see this coming: Eric Bachmann’s gone solo, gone acoustic, gone simple. Since the opening moments of Bachmann’s eponymous Crooked Fingers debut, it was clear that his Appalachian roots had spilled themselves all over his den. It was a considerable move towards subtlety and precision from a man whose previous band’s best work included an entire song about toast. Banjos. Stand-up bass. “New Drink for the Old Drunk.” Sure.
The stylistic shift worked mostly because Bachmann quickly proved himself an adept arranger and a gruff, intimate vocal presence. And Bachmann, impressively, kept moving forward, progressing from crude folk forms to jerky mariachi rhythms—a one-time electric warrior turned eloquent, un-ironic piano man.
It’s hard, then, to see Bachmann’s “first” solo album (in all likelihood, he’s been flying lonesome for years—this is simply the first time he’s attached his birth name to it) as anything but a conscious and divisive step backwards. If the promotional materials are to be believed, To the Races was written while Bachmann traveled throughout the Northwest in his van, and this apparently justifies the one-dimensional music—plucked acoustic guitar augmented by occasional piano or strings, or soft backing vocals. Of course, it’s one thing to write slow-moving, searching ballads; Bachmann’s done plenty of that. But he used to sing shamelessly about carrion, decay, and deceit. No more: To the Races sad-sacks its way through ten ballads, its sorrow born not out of the tragedy of human existence but rather the fact that Bachmann sort of sounds like a plump, po-faced softy.
By the time the Loaf ended, the guttural Bachmann had managed to develop a passable falsetto; throughout his Crooked Fingers career he used it to great effect, offsetting his deeply scarred pipes with bouts of fatigued sweetness. To the Races finds Bachmann high-wire crooning full-time, and this proves to be the album’s mixed blessing. Mixed because while Bachmann sounds way too much like a pathetic old dude singing pathetic old dude songs, the combination of his smooth upper register and his lily guitar figures is soothing—and at least occasionally affecting.
When Bachmann takes advantage of the space his Spartan setup allows, it works. (The thrilling, two-measure pause, in “Carrboro Woman,” between “You ain’t my woman” and “Woman I’m not your man,” for instance.) It also works when Bachmann name-drops Tarifa, Spain on “Man O’ War,” a strangely affecting moment amidst To the Races’s suffocating gray. This sort of place-specific lyricism suits Bachmann, attaching realism and weight to his pipes, which too often sits like lukewarm bathwater.
It’s not that Bachmann can’t handle this sort of low-maintenance gig; indeed, he sounds mature, confident. But one too often wonders what “Genie, Genie,” a comparatively up-tempo roller, could’ve been with a more robust arrangement or what would’ve happened if the ivory-fueled “Little Bird” had been wrapped in Bachmann’s weighter guffaw, rather than sensitive-guy malaise. If this sounds too harsh—taking issue with nebulous artistic visions—fine. Someone should be picking at Bachmann: he sounds strangely complacent at releasing a sensitive-guy, “intimate” folk record for Saddle Creek, playing up his vagrancy and sadness after a decade and a half of successful, meaningful songwriting. To the Races isn’t that bad. Bachmann’s just so much better.