Ten years ago, no one would’ve predicted that Eric Bachmann — then the gruff, hipster-mocking lead singer for still underappreciated indie-rock stalwarts Archers of Loaf — would be fronting a Spanish-influenced folk rock band. He was, after all, the guy who turned “Stuck a pin in your backbone / Smoked you down from there” into a rallying cry for the type of scenesters who thought White Out was a designer drug. By 1998 the prospect seemed even less likely, as the Loaf’s last album, White Trash Heroes, explored a sonic netherworld of hiss and white noise. Bachmann seemed mired in a hellish pit, unable to live up to the off-the-wall goofiness that his band’s first two albums had forced on him.

Dignity and Shame, is Bachmann’s fourth album with Crooked Fingers, a number that every music critic is quick to point out equals his output with The Loaf. And while Bachmann may never fully escape the shadow of his former band, he’s doing his God-damndest. It took two albums of decay and entropy for Bachmann to break out of the gloomy spell that befell his late ’90s output — any man who pens a song called “The Rotting Strip” is simply not on an even keel. Last year’s Red Devil Dawn, while still primarily focused on life’s darker pleasures, showed glimpses of decaying light at the end of the rotting tunnel, namely in the Latin-tinged “Sweet Marie,” which effectively combined Bachmann’s ever-present melancholy with his long-absent lightheartedness.

It’s surprising then, that Dignity and Shame, an album that effectively focuses on these two refreshing aspects, Spanish-flavored horns and guitars and a hard-won sense of hope, isn’t more uplifting. It is, without a doubt, Bachmann’s most emotionally well balanced work in over a decade, but it struggles to capture a true sense of release for anything but short stretches of time.

Above anything else, Dignity and Shame suffers from a couple of false-starts. “Islero,” a piddling, soft guitar instrumental justifies all of the matador artwork, but it, coupled with the call-and-response vocals of “Call to Love,” makes for an awkward beginning. “You Must Build a Fire,” a five-minute plus plodder that trades Bachmann’s gruff, Tom Waits-ian howl for a limp falsetto, serves as a momentum-killer in the middle of the album.

When Bachmann builds steam, however, he reminds everyone that he’s a clever, captivating songwriter with a helluva band behind him. On “Valerie,” the Fingers construct an airy jaunt for Bachmann’s lighthearted deflowering story. The buoyant horns on the bridge are brilliant, and no one cares that Bachmann’s singing about whores and loneliness because the whores are dancing and loneliness will be there when he gets home anyway.

“Valerie” moves into the thrilling “Andalucia,” which is punctuated by hard-edged drum stabs and a snarling indie-rock guitar. The chorus breathes with exultant, warm chords that make the dense rhythms shimmer. Elsewhere, “Destroyer” combines Bachmann’s newfound folk charm and the Loaf’s guitar prickishness in ways that would’ve seemed embarrassing three albums ago. “Coldways” glistens with an electric shuffle and “Sleep All Summer” finds the boy/girl caprice that “Call to Love” misses.

Dignity and Shame isn’t the post-Loaf masterpiece that Bachmann fans have been pining for, but it’s significant in that “refining his sound and moving on” sort of way. The Spanish theme pervading the album is largely a construction of the album artwork and a couple of well placed horn sections, but it’s refreshing nonetheless. Bachmann spent the first two Fingers albums trying to outrun his own shadow. He’s past that now, and while his gruff voice and hard-luck songwriting remain, Dignity and Shame is missing the type of urgency that’s fueled his best work.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

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