Reviews

To The Races

Author: Dan Shvartsman
08/22/2006 | 30music.com | www.30music.com | Album Review
Here's the weird thing about Eric Bachmann's debut solo effort, To The Races: last year's Crooked Fingers disc was an oh-so solid listen, but its strengths were the Spanish tinge, the bright trumpet-led production, and the fast rock songs. Its weaknesses were the length and the ballads, most of which blurred together and slowed the momentum of the album.

So what does Bachmann do? He literally lives in a van down by the river and produces an album of folkier tunes that err on the ballad side of the equation, stripping away the production and keeping it simple, with just guitar, piano, guest female vocals from Miranda Brown and guest violin from Devotchka's Tom Hagerman. Presumably, plugging away on his weaker side, Bachmann is bound to produce a weaker album, right?

Obviously, there are things left unexplained here. First, the sparser production suits the slower songs, clearing up the messy, neither bare nor full sound of the ballads on Dignity and Shame. This also allows Bachmann's voice to rise to the fore, and it too suits the songs perfectly, husky yet on pitch for all the higher notes.

Then, instead of channeling Spain as he did on his last effort, Bachmann taps into the very feel of the Southeast that Sam Beam rose to fame with, minus some beardcore cred. It goes beyond two song titles name-checking the South as the sound is right out of the quiet desolation of the modern South. And the other big issue is that Bachmann penned a much finer set of songs here, maybe the finest set of his career.

And where to start on those songs but the lead track, "Man O' War," which sets the standard high for the rest of the disc. Going nearly six and a half minutes and worth all of that time and more, the song sees all the key pieces, from the early Dylan-esque finger picking to Bachmann's full vocal register, from Brown's choir-like backing vocals to a tasteful piano part late on the song. And the lyrics are spot-on brilliant. Matched with Bachmann's inflections in the chorus, it's all so lovely.

Later, "Carrboro Woman" hits even more on the "Boots of Spanish Leather"-era Dylan, with the cutest huffing harmonica line laid down in years. Meanwhile "Genie Genie" is the bleakest song, a classic dark night of the soul tune with Bachmann again nailing the guitar and vocal parts perfectly, capturing enough despair for you to be begging for three wishes to dig yourself out by the end, but in the smoothest manner. The twist at the end, where he answers the chorus line, "Give me something, I'm looking for something" with "Give me something, I'm not dying for nothing" and then howls out of the depths of our collective pain, leaves us wondering if the singer will ever get out.

Bachmann does it so often on To The Races, this capturing of the multitude of emotions that comes from being alone or being with someone insecurely. The songs are strong, the performances are great, and, as Luther pointed out in his Lou Reed piece, the production is stripped-down and hence shouldn't date. Admittedly, this folkie music is easy to burn right through sometimes, classic on the second listen and forgettable by the seventh, but for now it looks like To The Races has staying power as one of the top albums of this year and Bachmann's career. Not so shabby for a man in a van down by the river. 8.3/10
To The Races

To The Races

CD / MP3