American Music Club (AMC) was one of the best but sadly neglected bands of the last 20 years, and Mark Eitzel was one of that eras most gifted songwriters. AMC's third album after The Restless Stranger and Engine, the understated California was their first significant triumph. In his trademark slurred croon, Eitzel whispers tales of loneliness, heartache, and desperation, usually accompanied by stark, mellow acoustic accompaniment. However, it’s Eitzel’s wise and witty lyrics that really stand out, and when he shouts “somewhere there’s people living” it’s pretty clear that somewhere isn’t where he is. Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel guitar gives several of these songs a country slant, while guitarist Vudi adds the occasional wash of feedback or rip of post-punk electric guitar to liven things up (most notably on the out of place punk rant “Bad Liquor,” the album's most serious misfire). Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Eitzel’s stories of tormented losers are filled with humor and generally offer hope, usually in the form of a stiff drink or the prospect of a future love. California is at times slow going to the point of being plodding, and it could use a few more memorable melodies. The album is also hindered by Eitzel’s barely audible whispering on some songs, but by and large it is a consistently honest collection that offers quite a few moments of rare and intense beauty. Favorite tracks: “Firefly,” “Somewhere,” “Blue and Grey Shirt,” “Western Sky,” “Last Harbor.”
United Kingdom (Demon ’90) Rating: B
Given that this album is only available in the U.S. as an import (appending California in the process), it took me awhile to track it down and I didn't get to hear it until well after the other '90s releases on this page. Which is just as well, I guess, for this rather short 34-minute album is something of a hodgepodge, containing 3 live tracks (not that you'd know given the lack of an audible audience) along with 6 studio cuts (some supposedly leftovers). It's still a good album, as the classic AMC sound (more sparse than ever but with the quiet moodiness we've come to expect) is still in evidence, but this isn't among Mark Eitzel's most memorable batch of songs. "Here They Roll Down," "Never Mind," and "Dream Is Gone" are among the more melodic entries, but the album relies too much on repetition and offers fewer quotable lines (like "the dream is gone, do you want another one?") than usual. Elsewhere, passionate vocals and pedal steel guitar mark "Dreamers Of The Dream," the title track is notable for its lone bass guitar and spoken/sung chants, "Kathleen" seemingly features a primal scream therapy session, and "Animal Pen" is Eitzel unplugged. Rounding out the track list, "Heaven Of Your Hands" comes and goes pleasantly enough, while "Hula Maiden" is (according to the Trouser Press Guide) "the first recording of Eitzel's occasional stage retreat into the safe harbor of broad Vegas schmaltz." Anyway, there's nothing here that's offensive or anything, but I can't pinpoint any classic tracks, either, so I'd recommend this worthwhile but unremarkable album only after delving into their subsequent superior releases.
Everclear (Alias Records ’91) Rating: A-
This more varied album is also notable for its production, as pedal steel guitarist producer Bruce Kaphan provides the band with a distinct, echoed sound. This is both a blessing and a curse - it gives Everclear a readily identifiable sonic trait, but the album also occasionally almost drowns in a sea of reverb. As usual, Mark Eitzel pens a strong set of sad songs (arguably his most consistent batch), and the band even shows some radio ambitions with the soaring rock chorus of “Rise” and the catchy twang of “Crabwalk” (it didn’t quite happen, of course). Elsewhere, we get straightforward and heartfelt tales of loser laments, as Eitzel’s (autobiographical?) characters struggle with both relationships and the bottle. Granted, Eitzel’s whispery vocals are mixed into the background, but the band’s beautifully atmospheric sound provides ample rewards even without considering Eitzel’s lyrics. Of course, you’d be missing out if you didn’t pay careful attention to his skillfully poetic and poignant tales of woe - whether sounding resigned (“come on lets waste another 1000 years”) or downright mean (“the price of your soul is worth less than the cab fare…”), Eitzel is always worth listening to. “Why Won’t You Stay” and “What The Pillar Of Salt Held Up” are AMC at their melancholic best, while “Ex-Girlfriend,” “Sick Of Food,” and “The Dead Part of You” all dramatically swirl with an echoey intensity. The folksy pop shimmer of “Royal Café” and the pretty “Jesus’ Hands” also show off the band’s considerable instrumental ingenuity, and Everclear was a sparkling step forward that many regard as the band’s best.
Mercury (Reprise ‘93) Rating: A-
Although this major label debut is also too heavily produced at times (by Mitchell Froom), Mercury is another ace collection of addictively depressing tunes that are again highlighted by Eitzel’s eminently quotable lyric touch. Lines such as “I’ve been a mess since you’ve been gone,” “all my hopes are unraveling,” and “we had a good time, we had some fun, and now we want to get the whole thing, over and done” are typically direct down and out lamentations from this loveable loser. While “your beauty is just a slap in the face” is a devastating line about loss, the simple sentiments of lines like “I believe you” and “nothing could bring me down” serve to lighten the album’s mood of self-absorbed pity. Eitzel’s mates provide mesmerizing musical support throughout, with an array of airy atmospherics, though AMC sometimes rely on edgy experimentation at the expense of song development. Still, though the material is a little inconsistent, when it’s good it’s inspired, and Mercury contains some of the band’s best songs. Like all AMC, this is a serious and often depressing record. However, song titles such as “What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life” and “The Hopes And Dreams Of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores” (which is followed by “More Hopes and Dreams,” though that clever song title is about all it has going for it) also reveal a winning sense of humor. In fact, when he seeks advice from Johnny Matthis (on the lushly orchestrated, richly imagined “Johnny Matthis’ Feet”), Matthis replies “never in my life have I seen such a mess.” That may be so, but he’s a hugely talented mess who’s backed by a highly distinctive band, and memorably moving songs such the druggy “Gratitude Walks,” the lovely “Hollywood 4-5-92,” and the intense “Apology For An Accident” were certainly hard for the critics (if not the public) to ignore. “If I Had A Hammer,” “I’ve Been A Mess,” “What Godzilla Said...,” and “Johnny Matthis’ Feet” are also first rate AMC, making Mercury an erratic but extremely rewarding album that I still listen to regularly.
San Francisco (Reprise ‘94) Rating: B+
A melancholy, moody atmosphere dominates yet another fine if flawed AMC album, though this one is somewhat compromised by its overly generous cd-era length. As usual, the band’s sympathetic backing and unique instrumentation keeps things sounding fresh, and as a result these (primarily) slow moving songs are rarely boring, though some lackluster exceptions (“In The Shadow Of The Valley,” "What Holds The World Together," “The Thorn In My Side Is Gone”) on side two bring the album down a few notches. The band does quicken the pace with some swirling keyboards and a surprising trumpet on “It’s Your Birthday,” while the irresistibly airy pop of “Can You Help Me?” is actually musically upbeat (a rarity for these guys). The driving rhythms and weary pessimism of “Wish The World Away,” the ABBA-referencing “Hello Amsterdam,” and the wonderfully titled “How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw In A Light” are also appealingly atypical Eitzel compositions. These unconventional songs aside, however, most of San Francisco is dedicated to slower, downcast meditations. The album peaks immediately, with Eitzel declaring “I’m lost again” on the nearly flawless “Fearless,” while the beautifully bittersweet “Cape Canaveral” (with its devastating denouement “I always knew that you would leave”) is arguably Eitzel’s most affecting song ever. Elsewhere, AMC are relaxed and confident on “The Revolving Door” and “I Broke My Promises,” while a solid cover of the Mamas and the Papas' “California Dreaming” is a surprise bonus track. Unfortunately, San Francisco didn’t sell as well as had been hoped for in the wake of considerable critical praise, and AMC remained a highly respected cult band mired in commercial obscurity. Mark Eitzel then disbanded American Music Club, thereby ensuring that they would remain eternally underrated champions of whiskey soaked down and outers stuck on societies fringes.
Love Songs For Patriots (Merge ‘04) Rating: A-
Lately it seems like there are reunions happening all over the place, some welcome (The Pixies, Mission Of Burma, the Go-Betweens) and others unnecessary (The Doors, Thin Lizzy , MC5). The reunion of American Music Club (singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel, bassist Dan Pearson, drummer Tim Mooney, guitarist Vudi, and multi-instrumentalist Marc Capelle, the only new member in place of pedal steel guitarist Bruce Kaphan) after a 10-year hiatus definitely falls into the former category, as they broke up when they were still doing high quality stuff and this reunion album is similarly strong and is better than anyone had any right to expect. Although Eitzel's solo albums are worth seeking out, AMC were always a band who added up to more than the sum of their individual parts, and on Love Songs For Patriots it's like they never left, as the band remains as eclectic and unclassifiable as ever musically and Eitzel's lyric writing is still razor sharp. Although his usual lovelorn loser laments are still there, this album is more hopeful and less depressing than those from his golden early '90s era (all of which were leavened by humor as well), and it's also far more political (unsurprisingly so; was any album not political in some way in 2004?). Fortunately, Eitzel's writing is subtle enough that lines like "you can laugh, you can cry, you can even bitterly grieve, but you can't deny that it's time to leave" can have multiple meanings (the war in Iraq, a failed relationship, or both), and as such this album transcends topicality and is less likely to sound dated years from now than other "political" albums from that hotbed of an election year. As per usual with latter day AMC, this 61-minute album is longer than it needs to be and has some songs that fail to really latch on, but the band's unique chemistry almost always manages to keep my interest and when Eitzel connects the results are excellent. The first song, "Ladies and Gentleman" is both jazzy and grungy, with lyrics that are again seemingly of a social/political bent ("ladies and gentlemen, it's time, for all the good that's in you to shine, for the lights to lose their shade, for all the hate that's in you to fade"), while the shimmering "Another Morning" (on which ex-girlfriend Kathleen again reappears) is more obviously personal. "Patriot's Heart" is a doozy of a first single, an ultra intense narrative starring a gay stripper on which Mooney's inventive percussive patterns nearly steal the show from the forceful piano and Eitzel's passionate vocals, while tinkly vibes and airy backing harmonies highlight the far more hopeful and happier "Only Love Can Set You Free," another stellar song on which Eitzel realizes "I've been so lucky." In between, Eitzel apologizes ("I'm sorry I made you cry") over a sparse acoustic setting on "Love Is" (though lush keyboards also appear) and Vudi's loud, abrasive guitar never lets the listener get too comfortable on "Job To Do;" this uneasiness that often appears in the band's work may be one reson why AMC never made it bigger than they did. Anyway, the half spoken word "Mantovani The Mind Reader" is one of those lesser tracks I spoke of, though it picks up at times ("you can be anyone you want to be"), while the rhythm section asserts itself on "Home" and "America Loves The Minstrel Show," which could almost be described as "anthemic" were it not for its cutting lyrics ("my life is a sham, I pretend that I'm free"). Much lighter is the sometimes humorous, irony-laced "Myopic Books," a pretty, whispery little number on which Eitzel pokes fun at snobbish indie types while dissecting a relationship ("maybe the worst is over"). "The Horseshoe Wreath In Bloom" is melodic, moody, and oddly jaunty all at once, while "Song Of The Rats Leaving The Sinking Ship" continues the AMC tradition of great song titles. Musically, this is a solo Eitzel acoustic showcase with a ghostly ambiance, while the 7 1/2 minute "The Devil Needs You" ends the proceedings with a supremely atmospheric and experimental surprise, as horns battle Vudi's discordant guitar for eminence within an increasingly busy and chaotic mix. eminence within an increasingly busy and chaotic mix. All in all, this song provides a fine finish to one heck of a comeback effort , which will hopefully be the start of a successful second chapter rather than an improbable one shot reminder as to why American Music Club were among the '90s more underrated and rewarding bands.
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