Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Monday, August 13, 2007

What Comes After

Artists: Barry Black; Crooked Fingers
Albums: Tragic Animal Stories (BB); Crooked Fingers (CF)
Source: Bought used (BB); promo (CF)

We expect weird, often contradictory things from our favorite bands. When they make music that is too different from what we expect, we'll often complain that they've strayed off the path. When they make a string of albums that seem to be the same thing over and over, we accuse the band of not trying something different.

Having dedicated fans must be kind of a pain in the ass, eh?

The Archers of Loaf were one of those bands that pretty much nailed the fine art of walking the fine line. Over half a dozen records in about as many years, they managed to solidly hold their center while also nipping at the outer edges - reaching just far enough from their core sound that it kept expanding, all the while making music that fit inside a recognizable aesthetic. So even when the inevitable pianos poked through the fuzzy guitars on All the Nation's Airports, it was still comfortably "Archers music" or some such thing. They kept it fresh while keeping it within the boundaries they'd defined on Icky Mettle.

But as Steve Wynn asked in a song he wrote years past the demise of his most famous band, The Dream Syndicate, what comes after? In the case of Archers lead singer and songwriter Eric Bachmann, he went way off the reservation when it came to non-Archers recording.

His first solo project, Barry Black, actually appeared contemporaneously with AOL's run. He made two BB records - a self-titled LP in 1995 and Tragic Animal Stories in '97 - that are weird, wonderful and wonderfully weird. And they sound nothing like Archers of Loaf. Often quiet instead of always noisy, instrumentally eclectic instead of guitar-centered, lyrical instrumentals instead of lyric-driven songs, each track on the Barry discs sounds like it was made by someone who would never listen to Archers of Loaf. Though if pressed, you could probably locate some sort of tonal center in the tunes that was buried in AOL tunes all along. If there's any analogue to this kind of ethno-musical indie rock, it might be the current group Beirut. But a decade ago, when the distorted, oddly-tuned guitar reigned supreme, it was kind of had to imagine where Bachmann was going with this.

When the Archers disbanded near the turn of the century, he went in even still yet another direction. Crooked Fingers was his next "band" (again, initially just him) and again it sounded nothing like the Archers. In fact, it kinda sounded like Neil Diamond. Seriously - listen to the self-titled debut, and the vocals, melodies and phrasing sound like they're coming from the Jazz Singer himself. But they were coming from our beloved Archer...and again, it was a bit disconcerting.

But over time, I guess I see where he was coming from. When you know what's expected of you, there's probably a limit to the thrill of easily fulfilling those expectations. And if you've got more going on in your head - in addition to Neil D, Crooked Fingers plays with some Tom Waits, some light Frippertronics and some oddly folky rhythms - then maybe a gradual curve in a new direction isn't enough. You have to pull over, put it in park, torch the Econoline van and hop on the motorcycle that you've been hiding from everyone.

SISOSIG? In the end, I still don't like Crooked Fingers as much as Archers of Loaf, but that probably isn't fair anyway. And on its own, Crooked Fingers is pretty cool. They lyrics and singing are more sophisticated than the insistent din of the Archers allowed for, and on subsequent albums Bachmann has added in strings, Spanish rhythms and all sorts of cool little sounds and fact, Crooked Fingers has kind of become Barrry Black with vocals. All of which means I still enjoy the heck out of these two discs, and not just because they're Archers-related. They've become their own autonomous musical entities. This isn't just what came after a great, great band - they're two of several branches that have grown off the main root and are becoming their own thing, something that I'll look forward to hearing what comes next.


  • Neil Diamond? The Jazz Singer? I thought you were young and hip. I bet your parents went to see The Jazz Singer(s). Nice to see that you are back on the air.

    By Anonymous Gil Hodges, at 5:21 PM  

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