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American Music Club

+ {Mark Eitzel}

Regularly cited as one of the most criminally undervalued songwriters in America, singer/guitarist MARK EITZEL (born January 30, 1959, Walnut Creek, Ca.) has captured many a critic’s ear with his neon-lit meditations on the tragic futility of human existence and the fleeting consolation of romantic love. Apart from a cult fanbase, however, AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB’s appeal has never really translated to a wider audience, even after the band were picked up by Virgin Records in the early 90s. By this point, the group had a clutch of austere, country-tinged classics under their belt, namely “California”, “United Kingdom” and “Everclear”, the latter set especially haunting in spite of its more accessible approach. MARK EITZEL, meanwhile, was contemplating a serious solo career, which, with several albums under his belt, has intermittently complemented or side-lined his AMC.
One can trace Mark back to his birthplace of Burbank, California, while a brief stay in the United Kingdom led him back to the States (namely Columbus, Ohio) and turn-of-the-80s bands The Cowboys and Naked Skinnies; two respective indie 45s: `Supermarket’ and `All My Life’ were issued in 1980 and ‘81. Now a permanent fixture in the Bay Area of San Francisco, gutter poet Eitzel formed AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB with the likeminded Mark “Vudi” Pankler (guitar), Dan Pearson (bass), Brad Johnson (keyboards) and Matt Norelli (drums).
Cut in 1985 for the small Grifter imprint and delivered at the dawn of ’86, debut album THE RESTLESS STRANGER {*5} showed eclectic heavy boozer Eitzel to be an observational storyteller, although even in `Room Above The Club’, `$1,000,000 Song’ , `Yvonne Gets Dumped’ etc., its angst-ridden, autumnal approach proved a sorry match for the thumping production; it’s since been disowned by most or all of the band.
Turning to TOILING MIDGETS man Tom Mallon for some inspirational production values (the multi-instrumentalist was also to replace Johnson), Frontier Records were behind album number two, ENGINE (1987) {*6}; Dave Scheff superseded Norelli midway through the set. There’d been many “drinking songs” from days of ye olde taverns, but in the modern-day Eitzel equivalents, `Outside This Bar’, the group-penned `Electric Light’ and `Gary’s Song’, a poignant first-person portrait of a man looking through the bottom of a shot-glass was portrayed in proper panoramic view by this world-weary singer.
Given better overseas promotion by English-run Demon Records (once home to ELVIS COSTELLO and some other former “Stiffs”), in both CALIFORNIA (1988) {*7} and UNITED KINGDOM (1989) {*8}, the despondent but maturing Eitzel weaved out cutting tracks such as `Firefly’, `Western Sky’ and the AIDS-edged `Blue And Grey Shirt’, all from the first of these sets. Its ironically-titled, UK-only follow-up was served best by `Dreamers Of The Dream’, `Never Mind’, `Heaven In Your Hands’ and the unsettling `Kathleen’; Mark unflinching in his attempts to jerk the heartstrings of his sad-core audience. Drummer Mike Simms was now in place as producer Mallon took over on bass before he bailed, and the latter set saw the introduction (at first as a guest) of Bruce Kaphan on pedal steel guitar, keyboards and bass. An interesting artefact of the time was MARK EITZEL’s “live at The Borderline” solo acoustic set for Demon: SONGS OF LOVE (1991) {*6}, which boasted several AMC faves played in a RODDY FRAME-type aplomb.
Eitzel’s wracked outpourings were often shot through with a kind of outraged desperation, the `Rise’ single (from 1991’s excellent Alias Records effort, EVERCLEAR {*8}), a poignant follow-on tribute to his friend who’d now died of AIDS. Also featuring such bleakly beautiful material as `Sick Of Food’, `Ex-Girlfriend’ and `The Dead Part Of You’, the esteemed album saw bi-sexual Mark E named as Rolling Stone magazine’s songwriter of the year.
The acclaim didn’t sit particularly well with the AMC frontman; Eitzel (who joined The TOILING MIDGETS in the meantime), perhaps in response, accentuated the self-mocking tone of his work on the major label debut for Reprise Records (UK Virgin): MERCURY (1993) {*7}. Now with ‘Midgets man Tim Mooney on drums and produced by Mitchell Froom, AMC were critically acclaimed once again. Despite garnering plaudits from miserabilists into 7” singles tracks: `Johnny Mathis’ Feet’ and `Keep Me Around’ (plus `If I Had A Hammer’), the album failed to sell, although it almost scraped into the UK Top 40.
It was the same story for SAN FRANCISCO (1994) {*6}, a disappointing but steely sad-core set that either drew one in or alienating one altogether. Much too tender and slick, listeners expecting a quick fix would nonetheless be rewarded by sticking with `Fearless’, the grungy `It’s Your Birthday’, the absorbing `Can You Help Me?’ and, at a push, the UK Top 50 single, `Wish The World Away’. Parting company with Reprise after the `Hello Amsterdam’ track was elevated to lead EP song, the band also saw fit to part company with each other, but at least they’d given it their best shot(s).
MARK EITZEL remained with Virgin Records (Warner Brothers in the States) for his first studio solo album proper, 60 WATT SILVER LINING (1996) {*6}; in places another critical success seemingly doomed to obscurity. Climbing on board the lounge-lizard, torch-jazz gravy train, the singer crooned away to his romantic heart’s content, something akin to PREFAB SPROUT in their heyday; `Saved’, `Southend On Sea’ and `Cleopatra Jones’, all in the “Couldn’t Bear To Be Special” envelope.
Extending his sadcore-pop trademark even further on 1997’s Peter Buck-produced WEST (1997) {*7}, EITZEL also surrounded himself with other indie alumni by way of Mike McCready (PEARL JAM), Barrett Martin (SCREAMING TREES), Scott McCaughey (YOUNG FRESH FELLOWS) and Steve Berlin (LOS LOBOS). `If You Have To Ask’, `Free Of Harm’ and `Then It Really Happens’, were hardly ground-breaking in the day’s post-jangle-rock brigade, but at least he was improving with age.
Taking a line from an old ELVIS song “Suspicious Minds”, CAUGHT IN A TRAP AND I CAN’T BACK OUT ‘CAUSE I LOVE YOU TOO MUCH, BABY (1998) {*7}, EITZEL’s return to esteemed indie imprint Matador (he’d issued a single `Take Courage’ in ’92), looked to have paid dividends. Augmented this time around by drummer Steve Shelley (SONIC YOUTH), bassist James McNew (YO LA TENGO) and guitarist Kid Congo Powers (GUN CLUB), this was an album that finally bridged the gap between his AMC workings and his solo sets, mainly due to it being recorded back in ‘95/’96. Livelier than before, for `Are You The Trash’, `White Rosary’ and `If I Had A Gun’, Mark seemed more at home flirting between his acoustic and electric sides.
EITZEL took a three-year hiatus before setting out his stall once more. 2001’s THE INVISIBLE MAN {*8} was a fine comeback, encompassing all modern trite such as electronic sampling, etc. Indeed, his best song for some time, `Proclaim Your Joy’, closed the album and might’ve just given him a deserved hit single, while `Can You See?’, `Steve I Always Knew’ and the wry `Christian Science Reading Room’, proved that the man could still hack it if given the time to develop his life-affirming messages.
The arch miserabilist was back in 2002 with MUSIC FOR COURAGE AND CONFIDENCE {*5}, presumably not a wholly ironic title for a covers record that, by its eclectic sweep alone, was worthy of close attention. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it was the countrified arrangements which worked best, especially JOHN HARTFORD’s classic `Gentle On My Mind’, although EITZEL reconstructed – almost ARAB STRAP-esque – the likes of BILL WITHERS’ `Ain’t No Sunshine’ and even CULTURE CLUB’s `Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’ in his trademark skeletal style; others came by way of `Snowbird’ (ANNE MURRAY), `Help Me Make It Through The Night’ (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON), `I Only Have Eyes For You’ (a hit for The Flamingos), `More, More, More’ (Andrea True Connection), `Move On Up’ (CURTIS MAYFIELD), `Rehearsals For Retirement’ (PHIL OCHS), and `I’ll Be Seeing You’ (recorded by BILLIE HOLIDAY); no room then for CAROLE KING’s `There Is No Easy Way Down’ or a former AMC exercise of The MAMAS & THE PAPAS’ `California Dreamin’’.
While THE UGLY AMERICAN (2003) {*7} – EITZEL’s first and last for Thirsty Ear Records – was hardly likely to spawn any hits, the record’s journey into Greek music at least made for one of the more adventurous deliveries of the crooner’s career. Comprising re-modelled versions of both songs from his AMC days and a choice selection of his latter day solo work, the album found EITZEL playfully messing with both the arrangements and the lyrics, setting the material to backdrops of Greek stringed-instruments and, in the process, complementing some of the most gut-wrenching vocal performances of his career.
Reuniting with his AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB buddies Vudi, Mooney and Pearson, LOVE SONGS FOR PATRIOTS (2004) {*7} put Mark’s rollercoaster solo sojourn to one side. If by forcing himself to assert a more miserable, melancholy mood, then by all accounts, tracks `Patriot’s Heart’, `Another Morning’, `Myopic Books’ and `Only Love Can Set You Free’, set the template and tone.
Also released on Cooking Vinyl (Merge Records still endorsed AMC’s fresh material), EITZEL’s next solo outing, CANDY ASS (2005) {*6}, saw the artist come across as something between COHEN or COSTELLO. Incorporating an icy electronic sound that sacrificed any emotion and warmth that his songs might’ve provided (there was a slice of humour in `My Pet Rat Is St Michael’), it was either brave or misguided to tackle loop-friendly stuff such as `Cotton Candy Tenth Power’ and the trip-hop `A Loving Tribute To My City’. But for all its melancholy meanderings there was depth and honesty in `Sleeping Beauty’, `Roll Away My Stone’ and a few others.
Eitzel and Vudi (but not Pearson and Toomey) were forced to enlist newbies Sean Hoffman (bass, vocals, guitar) and Steve Didelot (percussion, drums, guitar, vocals) for AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB’s swansong set, THE GOLDEN AGE (2008) {*7}. For lovers of RODDY FRAME and a plethora of other brooding singer-songwriter romantics, the fractured but feisty Eitzel brought to life, heartfelt layers of poignancy and passion; tracks which stood out for many were `Decibels And Little Pills’, `All The Lost Souls Welcome You To San Francisco’ and the gorgeous `The Windows On The World’.
While it was hard to see the immediate difference between EITZEL’s AMC output and his solo sets, 2009’s deeper and dirtier KLAMATH {*8} reached to listeners (UK-only) that were already inclined to fork out for his guttural miserabilist leanings. Like someone phoning one daily about how their girlfriend was – and is – treating them, poet Mark’s introspections were at first hard to penetrate without raiding the drinks and drugs cabinet oneself. The poignantly-titled opening salvo, `Buried Treasure’, probably depicted a set that also had lighter moments in the darker, self-loathing shadows of `The Blood On My Hands’, `What Do You Got For Me’ and `Why I’m Bullshit’. Incidentally, a couple of songs from the set (and others) featured on Simon Stephens’ Manne Parade, became part of 2010’s Brighton Festival; his appreciation it seemed centring in the south of England.
A serious heart attack in 2011 put paid to any work for a while, but when a friend of Mark’s donated a good part of their lottery winnings to the cause (and hired producer Sheldon Gomberg), Merge Records thought it wise to stand by their man for 2012’s DON’T BE A STRANGER {*7}. His mortality tested for the umpteenth time, although reinvigorated and confident in strengthening the depth of his mindful songs, it wouldn’t have been EITZEL without making his own mark on alt-country blues: pick of the bunch, `Why Are You With Me’, `We All Have To Find Our Own Way Out’, `I Love You But You’re Dead’ and one to unite us all, `The Bill Is Due’. Like COHEN, CAVE and LANEGAN, EITZEL is uncompromising in his downcast idiosyncrasies: a true artist that deserves as much fame as his aforementioned contemporaries.
Some four-and-a-half years later, a subdued by somewhat stronger EITZEL was fulfilling his role as alt-rock singer-songwriter elite with HEY MR FERRYMAN (2017) {*7}. With no Roxy Music affiliate in sight, instead there was the intricate production work and instrumental backing of one BERNARD BUTLER (he of SUEDE fame). The set was as impressive as it was delicate; lyrical highlights from the reflective and passionate `The Road’, `La Llorona’, `An Angel’s Wing Brushed The Penny Slots’, `The Last Ten Years’ and almost everything else.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2014-Aug2018

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