Your Flesh - Winter/Spring 1989
American Music Club
Publication: Your Flesh (#15)
Author: Amy Gelman
Date: Winter/Spring 1989
American Music Club's second album Engine was by far the best rock or "rock" album of 1987, but you didn't pay any attention to it, did you? You were busy shelling out bucks for the latest slab of pseudo-gypsy-hippie music from the dreadful Camper Van Beethoven. Or maybe it was the newest recording of Gibby Haynes chanting his laundry list - hell, I don't know what kind of garbage you people waste your money on. But I'm pretty sure you weren't listening to Engine because (mercifully) American Music Club are pretty darn unhip.
It's your loss though, because Engine is a truly great record. You might have dismissed them after their mediocre first album, The Restless Stranger, for which you can be forgiven. You might have heard snippets of it on your fave college stations, in between Midnight Oil and REM, perhaps (yeah, that's so alternative), and thought AMC was just another college radio band, blah, blah, blah - and you could almost be forgiven for that, because the songs that got played on the college radio didn't necessarily leap right out at the casual listener. But anything more than a casual listen makes it obvious that this is a record that cannot be listened to casually.
It chronicles a year, apparently a very, very bad year, in the life of lead singer Mark "Not a Happy Guy" Eitzel, and it's so harrowing, so beautifully depressing, that you can't help but be drawn into it. You can even overlook its pretensions and its melodrama - you can swallow lines like the massively silly opener to "Outside This Bar", or the almost comical, "Here I come/On my bed of nails/In the sky" (from the otherwise gorgeous "Asleep") - because the feeling, he desperate emotionalism that went into these songs, comes across so powerfully that you can't deny or escape it. And it's very affecting.
Anyone who's ever been drunk can't help but be struck by the drunken despair of "Gary's Song", with its memorable waltz-time chorus of "If you drink to much you will drown/And the shame of my life is watching you drown"; anyone who's ever had a family will understand the hurt in "Mom's TV", (an incredibly powerful song about the death of Mark's mother) or "This Year". ("This year/Everyone just stood around/And watched my family tree burn down/...Making no protesting sound.") I don't know, you really have to listen to it yourself to really understand.
After all it's not just the lyrics. It's guitarist Vudi's slashing, brittle leads. Eitzel's gorgeous, rich tenor. It's the whole band, a bunch of highly talented musicians who, remarkably, put up with Eitzel's stage antics (sulking, storming off in mid set though drummer/producer Tom Mallon does his share of that thing too) and drunken excesses without missing a beat, or at least not very many beats. It's guitarist Danny Pearson's spine-tingling harmonies, or the subtle use of mandolin and accordion in the strangest places. I'm gushing, yes, but they're one of the best bands around, and you're probably just too fucking hip to realize it.
They're a band that makes it very difficult for anyone who doesn't really make an effort to like them. Consider their live show for example. Eitzel will decide not to do a song after he's two verses into it; he'll walk off the stage or throw the mic stand into the crowd in a sudden and incomprehensible fit of pique. The rest of the band will keep going, or they'll trail off, bemused, and you'll think, "Well, that thirty seconds sounded pretty good - why did they stop?" Half an hour of this gets pretty frustrating, to say the least. But if you can stick it out, they'll pull off something magnificent - a breathtaking acoustic tune, or maybe one of their epics - that makes it worth every second that you've had to put up with.
Their new album California, justifies a great deal of effort, too. It's a less immediate album than Engine, and needs more time to sink in - parts of it went right by me the first two or three times I heard it. Eitzel sings several songs in a muttering half-whisper, as though to himself. It's not as consistent as 'Engine either; on 'Engine, just about every song stands out, while here there are a few throwaways, a lot of melodrama (though even that gets to you after a while, as in "Jenny" where Eitzel sings in a horse stage-whisper and tries so hard to sound tragic that eventually he succeeds) and one near-clunker, the sweepingly pretentious "Highway 5", which sounds like a bad outtake from the last Leonard Cohen album. But it also contains some of the band's best work.
The album, at first listen, sounds more optimistic than Engine, and it's certainly got a lusher, richer sound - lots of swirling guitars, even some pedal steel, I think. (This isn't surprising when you consider that Engine was mostly set in Columbus, Ohio, certainly a less-lush setting than California.)
The mood is not quite as unrelievedly grim as it was on Engine; there are even a couple of relatively upbeat moments, such as the musically, if not lyrically, lighthearted "Lonely", and the slightly silly "Bad Liquor", in which Eitzel almost pokes fun at himself. ("You wanna have some fun?/No way!") And where Engine expressed the theory that "outside this bar/There's no one alive", here, Eitzel insists that "Somewhere/there's people living", with a sort of incredulous hope. Still, the echoes the record leaves are, if anything, even more disturbing than the tone of Engine.
The prettiest songs here - "Firefly", "Blue And Grey Shirt", and the heartbreaking "Western Sky" are about loss, despair and how "the parade has passed us by." And the last song, the final impression you're left with, is the most hopeless: "Falling/And I can't see the bottom/Are you gonna be my last harbour?"
It's been said that unhappiness produces the greatest art, and if that's true, American Music Club should be turning out brilliant records for the rest of its career. To repeat myself, and at the risk of sounding trite, this is a band that means it, that feels every bit of the pain and exaltation in their songs, and the fact that they manage to communicate all that feeling is what makes them important. So go ahead, run right out and buy the latest CMJ chart-topper. Me, I'll be happily depressing myself with American Music Club.