Many great rock albums have one standout Latin flavored track that, although strong, feels out of place in context with the rest of the songs. Theres Jackson Brownes Linda Paloma from his 1976 classic The Pretender, Whiskeytowns Paper Moon off of Pneumonia, and the title track from The Eagles Hotel California, to name a few. On Forfeit/Fortune, the latest album from Crooked Fingers, comprised of former Archers Of Loaf frontman Eric Bachmann and his rotating musical ensemble, the exception becomes the rule – well, half-rule anyway; four out of the eleven tracks feature mariachi trumpets, flamenco finger plucking, and/or Bachmann singing in throaty Spanish.
Now we all know theres nothing wrong with diversity, especially in Bachmanns case. His albums with Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf run a hefty gamut, dipping into punk rock, Eastern European folk, coffee shop simplicity, and every other musical genre under the sun. But the majority of his discography champions consistency. If he wanted to venture into a particular genre, he did so with the entire album. Virtually every track on 2005s Dignity And Shame was dominated with Spanish atmosphere, which was wonderfully fitting since it was based on the lives of bullfighter Manolete and legendary Spanish actress Lupe Sino. But when one third of your album sounds like ELO, another third sounds like Beirut, and the final third sounds like The Gypsy Kings (as is the case with Forfeit/Fortune), the merit of having such an eclectic pallet comes into question
Not to say that all of the fusion flying around here is bad. Drum machines meet gypsy strumming on Luisas Bones, swirling together for something that is both bombastic and majestic. The same goes for Phony Revolutions, leading off with new wave synth before getting interrupted by a minhag horn section that sounds like the most celebratory Jewish funeral in history.
Even some of the Spanish tunes are surprisingly successful. The Tom Waits meets Pancho Villa rasp of Sinisteria is backed up with a rich piano and slowed down spy movie guitar, making for an oddball mixture thats both cool and creepy. Unfortunately, the same cant be said for No Me Los Des! a snoozer sung entirely in 9th grade level Espanol that feels neither authentic nor exciting. This is followed by Run, Lieutenant, Run, a clarinet-sprinkled ballad that is pleasant and dreamlike until Bachman belts out his rudimentary Spanish once more, sounding like a bad karaoke version of South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way) and ruining the second half of the song. Lets Not Pretend (To Be New Men), another sluggish clunker, would almost be saved by its eerie violin (sounding straight out of the hills of Transylvania) if the track wasnt over five minutes long.
The albums most successful songs are also its most straightforward. Opener What Never Comes may sound suspiciously like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with its barrage of dirty saxophones and Bachmans gruff vocals, but it is also bouncing, lyrically ponderous, and catchy as hell, coming off as an innovative tribute to The Boss rather than a rip-off. Closer Your Control, featuring the crisp, brassy vocals of Neko Case, is another highlight, a chugging rock gem of self-affirmation that gives the dreary second half of the album a much needed boost of power pop. Thanks to Cases pipes, it could be a New Pornographers b-side. Cannibals is the albums most memorable song, an encore-ready plea for kindness that is artfully sincere, asking everyone to come down from their caves so cannibals we wont become. The hopeful outlook doesnt last long though, as the song ends with a refrain of when cannibals call you, they call you by name, fading out on an uncertain future. This is juxtaposed with the songs anxiously cheerful musical structure, centered on constant harmonious FM crescendos that never climax, teasing the listener with all their bittersweet, sugary glory.
Although there is much to like on Forfeit/Fortune, as a whole it comes off as uneven. Lets hope with the next album, Bachmann leaves his worldly, new age sensibilities at home and keeps it simple. It may sound bigoted but at least it will be a little more entertaining.