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Crooked Fingers

Merge

“Islero,” the opening track on Crooked Fingers’ new Dignity and Shame, builds slowly but powerfully, adding flamenco-style guitar and some fine Spanish-tinged trumpeting by Jason Parker. Given that it suggests sounds and themes that the rest of the album delivers only sporadically—in the aural travelogue of “Andalucia,” for instance, or the liner-note image of a supine matador—it’s tempting to wonder whether Dignity and Shame was planned to be something other than what it became. And sure enough, the band’s press materials reference a 21-track double album trimmed to 12 songs and a single disc (though vinyl hounds get 14). The resulting quasi-theme, reportedly, is the life of famed matador Manuel “Manolete” Rodriguez Sanchez, who was born in Andalucia in 1917 and killed 30 years later by a bull named, yes, Islero. It’s usually a good idea not to let an album’s story trump the album itself, and whether it was intended as a conceptual exercise or not, Dignity and Shame comes across best as a collection of singles: “Destroyer” takes the I’m-gonna-make-you-mine approach to pop-song obsession one step further by anticipating the day when “I must leave you stranded in a haze.” “Sleep All Summer,” a beautiful middle-aged-marriage-fatigue number, ends with Fingers main man Eric Bachmann and co-vocalist Lara Meyerratken singing past rather than to one another. And the joyous “Valerie,” seemingly all bass, twang, and chorus, indicates that the Chapel Hill, N.C.–based Bachmann, who previously helmed the now-defunct indie-rock outfit Archers of Loaf, has some serious alt-country-hit-making potential. Musically, each track is well-arranged; the biggest sin is one of omission: After some stellar playing on “Islero,” Parker and his trumpet are benched for most of the album. His most noticeable return, blending with Barton Carroll’s lap steel on “Valerie,” is so successful—and, for a song about, among other things, drunken glee and the scent of cognac ’n’ cola, so giddily appropriate—that the combination begs to be explored further. But occasional turns to Bachmann’s piano notwithstanding, the group largely lets Carroll’s light touch on the steel fill a lot of the musical gaps. He’s a welcome presence on Dignity and Shame, but let’s hope that the next time Bachmann wants to wrestle with horns, he includes more of Parker’s.

—Joe Dempsey