CD Review of To the Races by Eric Bachmann

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To the Races
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Saddle Creek
Released: 2006
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Aside from possibly emo, there might not be a more problematic genre in all of popular music than the crusty tangle of guitar strings and beard hair calling itself “Americana.” If not for the undying hopes of consumers and critics who desperately miss rock & roll, it’s hard not to believe that this style of music – seemingly founded on the belief that any jackass with an acoustic guitar and a crummy singing voice can make the next Nebraska – would be even more commercially irrelevant than it already is.

It probably also helps that once in awhile, someone actually manages to make one of these records the right way, and To the Races is one of the lucky, wonderful few. This is mostly because Bachmann remembered what a lot of sad-eyed finger-pickers tend to forget; namely, that it helps if you write some actual songs.

Though Races will be a bit of a jolt if you haven’t listened to anything he’s done since his Archers of Loaf days, Bachmann’s entire career has really been a case study in reduction of sound; he’s been peeling back layers as he goes along, and with this album, he’s stripped his songs down to their emotional core. The result is a collection that stands on its own rather than merely coasting on a vibe.

Races is primarily built around Bachmann’s guitar and (decidedly un-crappy) voice, but he’s borrowed a few colors from the Drake/Springsteen palette to keep things interesting – a disconsolate piano here, a harmonica there, and liberal helpings of mournful strings. Though the album does have something of a soft middle, and occasionally skates perilously close to Sam Beam territory, these are relatively minor sins that don’t detract significantly from its hushed, pensive beauty.

It ain’t the party record of the year, but To the Races distills the best elements of modern indie folk and the singer/songwriter tradition more skillfully than most that try. If you’re looking for the soundtrack to a melancholy evening or a slow, thoughtful drive through the countryside, you could certainly do much worse.

~Jeff Giles