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Clinton and Crooked Fingers

By Franklin Soults

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  "It's the singer, not the song/That makes the music move along." Wrong. Actually, it's the band as whole. The Who seemed to know as much when they penned the above couplet in "Join Together," but they forgot it as soon as drummer Keith Moon passed on, in 1978. That crisis went a long way in transforming a band who were hanging in there to one who should have hung it up.

The Who were no different from any of their classic rock brethren. Time and again, groups pretended that the loss of one member or another had no effect on the integrity of their band -- an untruth of varying degrees. The same was even true for the first run of bands who sought to slay these dinosaurs. Remember the Clash without Mick Jones? The Replacements with Slim Dunlap?

Clinton and Crooked Fingers are two new ventures that demonstrate how much this has all changed -- instead of tinkering with the original line-up, the leaders have formed new bands. Clinton are led by Tjinder Singh, the singer and main creative force behind successful British groove-rock experimentalists Cornershop. Crooked Fingers began as an outlet for Eric Bachmann, who's the main creative force behind the defunct indie-punk band Archers of Loaf. Together, Singh and Bachmann represent a positive trend of talented artists who've realized that, yes, bands matter. Both started their new projects while their other bands were still putting out excellent work; both were careful to keep the two separate. That's no longer a problem for Bachmann, who has disbanded the Archers. And Singh has put Cornershop into suspended animation while he pursues Clinton.

Singh and Bachmann are musicians who naturally collaborate with others, and so they've chosen band names for their solo projects. "It would have been fair to put the Crooked Fingers record out under my name, but I wanted it to be a band," says Bachmann (who performs as Crooked Fingers this Tuesday at the Middle East) when I ask him about Crooked Fingers (Warm) over the phone. "Yes, I wrote all the stuff, and I'm changing the line-up all the time so the chemistry will be different every time I go out and do a tour. But I wanted it be kind of removed from the idea of one person doing everything. I wanted Crooked Fingers to be about a bunch of musicians reacting to the songs that I did write."

If that distinction sounds abstract, in practice it helps save this risky project. The Archers wrote punk anthems with walloping tempos, careering guitars, unhinged vocals, and self-critical, scene-scouring lyrics. Crooked Fingers, on the other hand, is a new-school singer/songwriter album, much more in line with the pensive baroque melancholy of the young Leonard Cohen, an artist whom Bachmann greatly admires. Traits that served Bachmann well in Archers -- like his croaking, plaintive voice and penchant for boozers, losers, and ugly endings -- here threaten to collapse into maudlin affectations, especially since his lyrics remain almost as impressionistic as ever. But when the melody or the imagery is taut enough, as in "Broken Man," with its lovely arc of strings and gently picked guitar, then this brave experiment pierces with real precision. And whether it flies or falters, it never feels slick, never loses the casual, collective, underground sensibility that surely comes from Bachmann's working closely with the seven musicians he recruited for the recording.

Clinton's Disco and the Halfway to Discontent (Astralwerks) is similarly a pared-down, tightened-up version of Singh's primary band. The difference is that here Singh moves from rock toward the impersonal realm of pure dance music. Like Bachmann, however, he's hardly surrendered his core aesthetic, and the disc's bright mix of '70s disco, '60s francophone pop confection, late-'90s mixology, and everything bright and cheesy in between is just as politically programmatic as Cornershop ever was. Which is to say, its sloganeering is catchy, humanist, smart, and completely ignorable if that's your solipsistic thang. What's more, working with the skimpy sounds of programmed drums and chip-laden keyboards, Singh still sets up the catchy trance groove that his Velvets-derived numbers with Cornershop achieved. Disco is a small album but a charming delight. If bonbons were only bombs, Singh seems to say, our guerrilla collective could meet on the dance floor to dream, scheme, and attack.

Perhaps one reason Disco works so well is that Singh brings Cornershop co-founder Ben Ayers along for the ride. If nothing else, that keeps Clinton as grounded in friendship as Cornershop are. And friendship, coupled with a sense of freedom, is the abstract idealistic basis for bands to begin with. As Bachmann puts it, "For now, this freedom is very nice -- just to be able to do whatever the fuck you want." And what else are friends for but to keep that illusion real?

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