Magnet - September 1993
American Music Club
Publication: Magnet (#1)
Author: Bruce Warren
Date: September 1993
It's long been said Mark Eitzel - singer, songwriter and frontman for San Francisco's American Music Club - is a tortured soul. For more than a decade, Eitzel has amassed an impressive body of music, a collection of songs so intensely revealing that critics have dubbed him "the greatest living songwriter" and a "manic depressive with a Grand Canyon streak of neurosis and tortured artistic depravity."
Either way you interpret his brilliantly crafted songs of love, the general critical consensus is while it's been a long time coming, American Music Club is about to step into a new popular arena with its recent major label debut, Mercury.
"Yeah, yeah, we know all that," says AMC guitarist Vudi, who along with Eitzel is talking to me on the eve of a European tour. Both men seem tired of the critical reputation that has followed AMC since its 1985 debut, The Restless Stranger.
"It's never made too much sense," says Eitzel. "All this talk about us being the best kept secret. Critics have also made a big deal about us going from being an indie band to a major label, but people called our last album (1991's Everclear) a sell-out. You put out records and you don't sell them, then you make one that's more accessible, and that's the sell out.
"I put records our for creative reasons," he humbly continues. "I've always tried to be true to the song. Humility, that's what it's all about.If anything, we've always kept ourselves from more popular success. The music and the band itself have always been enough."
Since it's mid-'80's debut, AMC has been making harrowing, insightful acoustic music. Eitzel's bittersweet songs are mesmerizing and melancholy folk-like rockers that often torch into raging feedback. On new material like "I've Been A Mess", he can say more in one song title than most artists attempt in a full album. And if Morrissey and J Mascis have come to be role models for the twentysomething slacker generation, then AMC's love songs - through Eitzel's aching, cathartic baritone feeding the bleakness of human existence - are novellas for this same generation's disaffected adults.
"A long time ago I decided that these acoustic, personal songs that I write are really to make people happy," says Eitzel." Acoustic music, sad songs of love and turmoil, is the root. With it, you have one guitar and sing over it. The message predominates, and it is more direct.You can have sparse instrumentation, but you don't have all that rock bullshit to get in the way. Acoustic music has no wall, it makes you more vulnerable. For me it's always been, 'Do these songs reflect me or anyone's life?' If love is a trap, then you have to think that love is also a way out of that."
With Eitzel's barenaked philosophy on the table, Mercury moves his songwriting and the band's musical skills to an even higher level of aesthetic beauty. Produced by Mitchell Froom - known for his work with Los Lobos, Crowded House and Suzanne Vega - Mercury, hard as it may seem, contains some of AMC's best work.
The merry-go-round-like waltz of "Hollywood 4-5-92" finds Eitzel declaring: "My revenge against the world is to believe everything you say/Balanced as you are on a pile of empty bottles," even though he finds a bizarre, skeptical attraction to his lover's rejection. The beautiful, scorning surge of feedback that underpins his pleas of "If you don't want me, why don't you say, why don't you tell me, why don't you tell me?" on "Keep Me Around" is balanced by the haunting balladry of "Gratitude Walks" and "Apology For An Accident".
But it's on songs like "I've Been A Mess" and the outstanding "Johnny Mathis' Feet", about a punk rocker who get's to meet his pop music idol and question him about his success ("You've gotta learn how to disappear in the silk and amphetamines," is Mathis' reply), finds Eitzel's poetic imagery at it's most wondrous, most tormented and most empowering. Familiar, folksy, urban and melodic, Eitzel's emotional release, backed by a band that perfectly complements his impetuous lyrical and vocal presence, often recalls the work of Neil Young,George Jones and Nick Drake.
Mercury continues AMC's exploration of the "human condition," romanticizing love's grey areas with songs of liberation rather than lessons in depression.
"Sure my songs are depressing," Eitzel admitted just two years ago about his love songs. "But depressing songs can be uplifting. When Hank Williams or Billy Holiday sings one, no one calls them depressing. Most of the pop songs I write, like most of the art I like, is out of pain. The modern thing to say would be, 'Years of therapy never helped me.' I mean look at Neil Young. What would have happened him had he gone to therapy?"
After talking about role models, heroes and current literary favorites (Paul Bowles, Cormac McCarthy and Marie Rainer Rilko), Eitzel has to end our talk to go move his car. Like his songs of love, all born out of the contradictions of the modern world, parking meters are a virus that, like relationships, require you to put more into them or get towed away.
"Look at me," concludes Eitzel. "I don't have a life. I write these lame-ass, whiny songs. Basically, I want to be this generation's Christopher Cross."