Last year's Crooked Fingers debut was such a shock to the system, such a lightning bolt, that it's difficult to judge its successor with any objectivity. That record saw former Archers of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann shift from howling over dissonant guitars to painting delicate, semi-acoustic portraits of edge-of-cliff moments and desperate losers. Rest assured, what the new album lacks in surprise factor, it makes up for in substance. And what it lacks in punk-rock volume, it makes up for in naked punk-rock honesty.
"The Rotting Strip" sets the tone immediately with a stark, industrial bleakness. "Blurry eyes have bent/and I can't take you sober," Bachmann rasps in his best 21st-century Neil Diamond (sans the glitter). Then, here come the subway-rumble cellos and a disarming Yaz-era electronic backbeat.
An ambient tape loop drives the comparatively peppy "Doctors of Deliverance," a song that also contains Bachmann's most familiar vocal cadence--the one from the Archers' "Greatest of All Time" where he sings that propulsive "Throw him in the river, throw the bastard in the river ..." I never get tired of that.
The intro to "Devils Train" sounds light enough to belong in a Sting song. But when Bachmann's pained voice comes in, the strings swell like thick smoke, the door slams shut and the light is extinguished for pretty much the rest of the record.
If Neil Diamond is one reference point--and it seems to be--surely the Pogues' Shane MacGowan must be another, perhaps to Bachmann's personal detriment. Pain can yield great art, but sometimes at a price. For what it's worth, I hope someone's looking out for Eric Bachmann and that he's not as broken as he sounds. Genius and madness have, after all, always played in the same neighborhoods--and I think they both might know where he lives.