ERIC BACHMANN returned to Asheville, North Carolina, to record his latest album. It was a homecoming of sorts; Asheville is where his father lives and where Bachmann went to high school. But despite the notes of nostalgia on Eric Bachmann, the nine-song album that came out in March on Merge Records, the recording sessions weren't meant to be a look back. Rather, the songwriter was simply in need of a great piano, and Asheville's Echo Mountain studio had one: a Yamaha C7 grand whose sound Bachmann wanted to drive the new songs.
"The funny thing with using a piano like that is that you have to take some of the sound away to allow all the other instruments to fit," Bachmann says. "So you should know the tracks on this album are very sparse, because we wanted to make sure that piano had enough [space]. And if you get two things sounding great, it sounds better than 30 things sounding average."
Despite the deliberately stripped-down arrangements, Eric Bachmann is surprisingly lush, due to its full piano sound and layered backing vocals, which function as deliberate callbacks to the pop and doo-wop sounds of the early 1960s. "'Mercy' and 'Carolina' are kind of the bookends of the record, the main things that I based everything on," Bachmann says. "With 'Mercy,' the content of the song is really a specific message I'm trying to send to people from the generation ahead of me. That generation and their music, they love Frankie Valli, they love the Beach Boys, they love the Motown bands—so when I made 'Mercy' and I knew what the intention of the lyric was, I wanted to send it directly to them. That's why it starts with the Phil Spector beat. It's specifically designed for them to kind of go, 'That's a nice sound! That's what I used to grow up listening to!' And then you hit 'em with the lyric. And when that worked, I thought, well, I can do the whole album with that in mind—so it defined the arrangements for the rest of it."
The caustic message of the deceptively sweet-sounding "Mercy" is plain: "Don't you dare believe them/When they try to tell you everything/Happens for a reason/Because it doesn't mean a goddamn thing." The theme of living for the here and now, and of the futility of withholding forgiveness, occurs throughout the album, which puts emphasis on relationships that exist in the present tense. "You want to make sure that what you're saying is what you intend to say because you're going to add more clutter to the pile," Bachmann says. "So make sure that you can own it, that you can defend it."
Bachmann is putting together a special band of Portlanders for his two Pacific Northwest shows. He's enlisted drummer Dan Hunt, with whom Bachmann has played in Neko Case's band; pianist Jay Clarke, formerly of the excellent Portland group Dolorean; and singers Joy Pearson and Rebecca Marie Miller of the local folk duo Lenore. It's a lot of effort for a mere two shows, but it's indicative of Bachmann's continual need for fresh musical stimuli. That thirst that has led him from the thorny guitars of '90s indie-rock lodestars Archers of Loaf to the funereal ballads of Crooked Fingers and the meditative whispers of his brilliant 2006 album To the Races (one of the few albums to be released under Bachmann's own name, although he suggests Crooked Fingers' 2011 album Breaks in the Armor might has well have been an Eric Bachmann solo album).
"The only shocking thing to me is that people assume you don't think about things," Bachmann says of keeping listeners on their toes. "But I'm very aware that if I make the first two Crooked Fingers records dark and curmudgeon-y and I'm singing about people burning and stuff, and then I write a song like 'Call to Love'—on Dignity and Shame, a real poppy, catchy pop song that's the opposite of everything I've ever done—they're not even considering that I know I'm going to lose 50 fucking percent of these people. I know I'm doing that. It's intentionally subverting. I'm basically trying not to be a fucking hack and repeat myself over and over again. I'm trying to make myself grow. Does it work all the time? No. I'll give you that. Sometimes I write shit, I get it. But I don't care what you think: I'm trying to grow. That's all it is."