Rock’n’roll, especially the fringier areas thereof, has always been awash with beautiful losers. Maybe that’s why American Music Club mastermind Mark Eitzel is so refreshing. His desperate confessional songs reveal a man with little doubt that he’s a loser, but can’t for the life of him see any beauty in said condition. With a no-frills Bay Area aggregation providing bare-bones backing, Eitzel’s pointedly non-metaphorical writing sails past self- revelation on its way to self-evisceration.
The singer’s unipolar, Ian Curtis-like vocal drone dominates The Restless Stranger‘s tales of solitude and delirium tremens to perhaps too great a degree. That affectation, and occasionally ponderous arrangements (Eitzel has cited, without irony, early Yes as an influence), blunt some of the songs’ impact, though “Room Above the Bar” and “$1,000,000 Song” bull through. A lineup juggle that preceded Engine (producer Tom Mallon stepped in to handle guitar — and, more important, arranging — chores) nudges the band toward stark but gently applied folk-rock structure. On “Outside This Bar,” a Bukowski-like attempt to maintain the hermetic seal around the singer’s world, Eitzel wails almost unaccompanied; in this context, when the backing grows more strident (as on the harrowing “Art of Love”), the edge becomes even sharper.
Like a particularly cruel maze, California is exceedingly difficult to enter and all but impossible to extricate oneself from. Though it incongruously contains the spitting brawler “Bad Liquor,” California is even more austere than previous AMC efforts. The cumulative emotional overload (particularly on “Laughingstock”) is positively anesthetizing.
Dispensing with its predecessors’ vague adherence to folk-rock structure, United Kingdom lacks obvious songs and melodies as such and, in its starkness, recalls nothing so much as Big Star’s Sister Lovers. Perhaps the most interesting thing (besides the fact that the three live tracks lack any standard concert-album evidence of an audience’s presence) is “The Hula Maiden,” the first recording of Eitzel’s occasional stage retreat into the safe harbor of broad Vegas schmaltz. With its wild mood swings — from morose to mocking — United Kingdom is the best microcosmic document yet of an erratic, invigorating and frightening band. (The CD contains all of California as well.)
Everclear recasts American Music Club as a bona fide rock band, with mixed results. The anthemic “Rise” turns an uncommonly hopeful eye on the topic of AIDS, hailing its protagonist as a (potentially) conquering hero. But more often than not, slickened production works against the band, encouraging Eitzel’s tendency towards bombast and inflating longtime guitarist Vudi’s sound to illogically arena-esque proportions. The Rise EP combines the title track with some restrained material, most notably the rhapsodic “Chanel #5.”
Every one of Mercury‘s fourteen songs sounds like an apology for Eitzel’s very existence. He may couch some of his rending sentiments in feigned indifference (“I’ve been praying a lot lately/Because I no longer have a TV”) or tried-and-true slapstick (there’s a song entitled “What Godzilla Said to God When His Name Wasn’t Found in the Book of Life”), but those tricks are reminiscent of sad-sack pathos masters like Harold Lloyd. Part exorcism and part party trick, songs like the narcotically slow “Gratitude Walks” (one of several here that implicitly address the AIDS-related deaths of several friends) cast Eitzel in the role of street-corner preacher. Typically, when he meets one of the deities in his pantheistic universe (in “Johnny Mathis’ Feet”), said idol dismisses him as a hopeless mess. A postcard from the edge.
While a good bit of the exceedingly muted San Francisco (particularly “The Thorn in My Side Is Gone”) reveals Eitzel to be descending to yet another level on his tour of the psychic abyss, he seems more willing to stumble towards what few rays of light exist down there. The spy-flick throb of “It’s Your Birthday” sees him encouraging a pal to accept the love of a partner, “Even though she hasn’t been a girl for very long”; the dynamic “Wish the World Away” seeks its solace in mood-alterers as varied as TV and good ol’ bad liquor. There’s even a moment of black comedy: in “Hello Amsterdam,” Eitzel addresses the band’s continued commercial failure, noting “They didn’t even like us when we played ‘Dancing Queen.”‘ No ABBA covers materialize on Hello Amsterdam, an EP that incorporates that song and a handful of otherwise unavailable tracks, including an alternate version of “The Thorn in My Side Is Gone”) and the wry, rock-star-baiting “The President’s Test for Physical Fitness.” (Simplifying matters for collectors, the EP contains “I Just Took My Two Sleeping Pills and Now I’m Like a Bridegroom Standing at the Altar,” which was added to San Francisco‘s abridged vinyl edition.) With that, Eitzel broke up the band at the end of 1995.
Songs of Love Live, documenting a then-rare solo show, was recorded in London in January of 1991 and captures Eitzel in varying stages of drunkenness and equally varying degrees of control. The between-song shtick seems to have been partially excised, which is unfortunate, since even a mediocre Eitzel performance (which this one is) can be redeemed by the guy’s rants. The studiofied 60 Watt Silver Lining provides a different, virtually adult-contemporary setting for Eitzel’s lyrical gems. His voice, which has grown mellower and less prone to sudden cracks over the years, sounds almost soothing on typically downtempo songs like the acoustic, flute-filigreed “Wild Sea” and the loungey, Tom Waits- like “Some Bartenders Have the Gift of Pardon” (which invests a mythical mixmaster with godlike qualities). Those with an affinity for Eitzel’s more messed up excesses needn’t fret: “Cleopatra Jones” leaps into blaxploitation melodrama with the skewed kinship only a self-professed loser could muster.