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In With the New
By John Brodeur

Crooked Fingers

Dignity and Shame (Merge)

Eric Bachmann has spent much of his post-Archers of Loaf career singing through a drunken fog, or at least an implied one. On the whole, his songs have addressed despair, heartbreak, alcoholism, and the shadowy side of human nature, making it all too easy to hang the “new Tom Waits” tag on him, especially early on, what with songs like the priceless “New Drink for the Old Drunk” (from 2000’s Crooked Fingers). The Dark Side appeared to be winning with Bring on the Snakes, an album so bourbon-doused, it might have been better-titled Bring on the Shakes, and a heavy Springsteen jones reared its head on most of 2003’s Red Devil Dawn (not to mention the reverent cover of “The River” on the Reservoir Songs EP). But on Dignity and Shame, the fourth full-length under the Crooked Fingers banner, Bachmann has trained his sights on matters of the heart, and brought in a broader, brighter sound to match.

The pairing of Bachmann’s heavy-on-the-scotch baritone with straightforward pop melody and execution seems a little cloudy at first. The album marks its path with the instrumental “Islero,” which couples deliberately picked nylon-string guitar with Cuban hand drums and a single Mariachi-like trumpet. It would make a fine bridge between where things left off and the rest of this album—that is, if what came next weren’t such an about face. Filled out nicely with lap-steel guitar and breathy harmonies, “Weary Arms” is a lilting meditation on that whole “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” thing. “You’ve been waiting your whole life to make your move,” Bachmann sings, “so make your move.” It’s a bit of a mantra for the rest of the album as, overall, Dignity and Shame is the most accomplished Crooked Fingers release since their debut.

Bachmann doesn’t wait long to make his own move, either, as the next track, “Call to Love,” is easily the purest pop moment in the Fingers’ recorded catalog, all so briefly making appropriate the rarely used “new Marshall Crenshaw” tag. A duet with Australian vocalist Lara Meyerratken (herself an enormous asset to this album), the song is full of instantly recognizable melodies that are quite possibly borrowed—sorry, stolen—from a number of sources. (I could swear I heard a Blink 182 vocal riff in there.) T.S. Eliot once said (more or less) that “good writers borrow, but great writers steal,” and by displaying this level of artistic freedom and willingness to break from tradition, Bachmann has firmly encamped himself with the latter. It was about time, too, as he was quite nearly spinning his creative wheels by the end of Red Devil Dawn.

Dignity and Shame isn’t completely removed from past efforts, though, and should avoid alienating longtime fans. On “Wrecking Ball,” Bachmann dispenses a classically (for him) dark lyric about a man who finds pleasure in others’ pain over an “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”-style piano riff; on “Valerie” he’s “wandering drunk down [her] street,” boasting of seeing her “dancing alone in [her] room.” Creepy and personal, he gets inside the heads of the miscreants that populate his tunes, not sympathizing with them so much as giving them a fair shake.

But there’s an undeniable sweetness of tone here, in both Bachmann’s words and voice, which sounds clearer and less downtrodden than ever. (Check the pitch-perfect falsetto that turns up on “Twilight Creeps” for a prime example.) That sweetness becomes especially clear when Meyerratken steps forward, as on the album’s second duet, “Sleep All Summer.” Sounding like a country take on the pop band Ivy, “Sleep” finds the pair lamenting the waning days of a relationship, culminating with the weary but hopeful line, “Why won’t you fall back in love with me?” It’s honest, beautiful, universal; a fixed compass point leading toward a somewhat new, yet perfectly familiar, direction.

Little Richard

King of Rock and Roll (Rhino Handmade)

In 1968, Elvis Presley had his infa-mous comeback special on television, and four years later Chuck Berry scored his only No. 1 hit with the sophomoric “My Ding-a-Ling.” During that same time, Little Richard signed with Warner/Reprise and recorded three albums that were released and an unissued fourth. More than most of his ’50s-anchored contemporaries at that time, he created music that had no need or room for nostalgia. The 50 songs on this three-disc set bristle with the same timeless components that had informed Richard’s music from the start, but deepened with the intervening year’s gospel explorations and updated with swampy grooves and edgy instrumental sonics.

The real revelation here are the 10 songs, all originals, that made up the completed but never issued Southern Child album. The title track is a lost slice of Dixie funk that sounds as fresh as the day it was baked. Besides the other three full albums (The Rill Thing, King of Rock and Roll, and The Second Coming), this limited-edition set also has a handful of other unreleased tracks, radio spots, and three songs Little Richard recorded with Quincy Jones for the soundtrack to the film $, including “Money Is,” with Richard belting out a dazzling vocal over a Shaft-meets-Sly arrangement. The sad truth is that at the same time these albums were being ignored in the shops, way too many citizens were squandering their earnings on the woeful entity known as Sha Na Na, an outfit who, combined with the media thrust of Grease and Happy Days, taught a new generation that the music of 15 years prior was concocted by clowns and buffoons. Meanwhile a king walked among them.

—David Greenberger

Billy Idol

Devil’s Playground (Sanctuary)

Billy Idol’s first album in 11 years shows that the ’80s never die, they just recycle and extend. There are relatives of “Dancing With Myself,” “Flesh for Fantasy” and “Rebel Yell” here, and Idol hasn’t lost any of his drive or snarl. Is the material a progression from his earlier work? Maybe not, though the last three songs suggest a more mature Idol. Not only do the superslick, catchy “Cherie” and the sultry “Summer Running” prove he’s a better singer now, they also affirm his prowess at assimilation, even of folk inflections. Damn if “Summer Running” isn’t a turbocharged love song; you can tell from the strings.

One of hard rock’s top bad boys, Idol still knows how to ratchet up the drama. “Evil Eye,” a Doors-styled inquiry into myth, ritual and deviance, seems ready-made for video treatment. You might recall how well Idol songs translated to video; Idol is synonymous with early MTV. An Aztec treatment is just the ticket for “Evil Eye” with Idol, all spiky and moussed, driving his motorcycle onto the sacrificial platform. “Lady Do or Die” has a Johnny Cash groove, for God’s sake; there is variety here, and Devil’s Playground is an album indeed, not just a singles showcase.

Helping Idol on this comeback effort is Steve Stevens, the super-flashy guitarist who powered Idol’s biggest hits. Also on board: Keith Forsey, the disco-cured producer who helped Idol craft his glistening, hard-rock microfantasias. Devil’s Playground isn’t a trailblazer, but it is more than an affirmation. It’s the kind of album you can’t help turning up, and it proves that Idol, at 50, can’t help rocking.

—Carlo Wolff

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