Though band hiatuses and interpersonal implosions happen every day, Eric Bachmann went one better: He broke up with his own onstage persona. Crooked Fingers, the solo project-turned-full band that Bachmann formed after the dissolution of Archers of Loaf, the ’90s-era rock outfit he fronted, gave the singer-songwriter an outlet for his poppier song craft. But as Bachmann — who grew up in Asheville and launched his music career in Chapel Hill — announced the official end to Crooked Fingers, he also heralded in his newest era as a performer. He’ll perform tracks from his just-released eponymous album, the second under his own name, at The Mothlight on Sunday, April 17.
“I think there’s a common thread of self-loathing among people who are good at writing,” Bachmann half-jokes. He’s including himself, though the nine tracks on his new record aren’t character assassinations as much as character studies. There’s a hint of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, with its collection of quirky and haunted personalities. Bachmann collects lost lovers, drug users, an agoraphobic and a prodigal son. “The South is a ghost,” he sings. “A ghost is a lie.”
But while there’s a storytelling continuum to the album, its sonic benefactors are harder to trace. “I thought, ‘What do I like, what do I want it to sound like?’” Bachmann says. He had songs that he wrote on guitar and piano that “weren’t really gospel-y, they weren’t really country and they weren’t really rock.” The blank canvas freed him to experiment. He’d never used pedal steel on an album before, but knew Jon Rauhouse, a collaborator and fellow member of Neko Case’s touring band, could provide those parts.
Indeed, the pedal steel is glossy and almost tropical at the beginning of “Separation Fright” — a foil to that track’s jittery lyrics and breathless ascending and descending piano scales.
At odds with Rauhouse’s contribution, at least on paper, is the addition of doo-wop background vocals. The idea started with the album’s single, “Mercy.” That song is a kind of credo — “I don’t believe in Armageddon / heaven, hell, or time regretted,” Bachmann sings. He blithely pairs sober philosophy with cheek: “I’ve got family – I’ve got friends / And I will love them ’til the end / Despite the batshit crazy things they often say.”
“I wanted to make sure the generation I was talking to would hear it,” Bachmann says. So, thinking about his father’s favorite music, he tapped “Don’t Worry Baby”-era Beach Boys for its doo-wop sensibilities. Those breezy, early ’60s tones marry Bachmann’s pop, rock and Americana sensibilities and Rauhouse’s guitar work to create something fresh.
For all the swell and pomp of “Mercy,” the album’s softer tracks might actually hit harder. Bachmann’s burnished, aching vocal on “Dreaming” and the hushed bridge — lifetimes from the angst and bombast of Archers of Loaf — lay raw emotion at the altar of songwriting.
“Carolina,” another standout, was written by Bachmann’s wife and sometimes bandmade, Liz Durrett. While she won’t be part of this current tour, Bachmann’s personnel plan allows him to reunite with musician friends while enlisting a full band for each stop. He’s lined up different groups for each of three sections of the country. In Asheville, he’ll be performing with drummer Jeremy Wheatley and guitarist Matt Nelson, both of whom played on the album. Avery Draut and Skylar Gudasz will be the backup singers.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bachmann feels as if he’s never had the following in his hometown that he did in the Triangle area where Archers of Loaf began. Still, he looks forward to visiting family and, “The friends I have in Asheville, they get it,” he says. “They know who I am, and I’m grateful to them for that.”
With the release of Eric Bachmann, listeners will also know who the singer-songwriter really is. “I feel like if I made a misstep, it was in 2006 when I made the [first solo] record To the Races. I should have stayed with that,” Bachmann says. At the time, advisers in the music industry told him that bands sold better than solo efforts, so he returned to Crooked Fingers. Now, more experienced and self-possessed, “I don’t want to be a dumb band name anymore.”
WHO: Eric Bachmann with Andrew St. James
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Sunday, April 17, 9:30 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show