Alternative Press - November 1991
American Music Club: Never More Clearly Understood
Publication: Alternative Press
Author: Daniel Efram
Date: November 1991
No one said music had to be easy listening. Some music hits the ears with such force it demands attention. And some music convinces the listener of its worth with sugar, spice and pleasant good-natured spirit. American Music Club fits neither category. Instead, San Francisco's favorite sons conjure deep emotions without hitting you over the head, yet they'll use any means at their disposal to put a song over effectively. Their subtlety both hides & enhances the true angst that underlies each song.
At the helm of the group is Mark Eitzel, a veritable song craftsman who is able to evoke emotions with the sincerity of his straining voice and the poignancy of his words. On stage and record, he seems to share his innermost feelings with the world. But at home in San Francisco, Eitzel, an intensely shy person, is more likely to be found riding his bike around the park or working his job at the public library - a pretty abnormal lifestyle for a typical rock musician, but Eitzel is not typical.
"If I'm not working, I get up around ten and then I got to the cafe and I write. At work, I type up book order slips, work on the computer a bit, and then I alphabetize a month's worth of book reviews to be filed. It can be pretty fucking boring."
The same term, however cannot be applied to American Music Club's new record Everclear, on the bands new label, Alias. Shimmering and shaking its way through an emotional graveyard, the album evokes feelings of sorrow and yearning that one may have thought were buried for good. But this sincere approach is not new ground for Eitzel or American Music Club. Their fifth full release follows a long line of honest recordings, beginning with The Restless Stranger (1985), Engine (1987), California (1988) and the UK-only Demon Records release United Kingdom (1989).
Being prolific ,however, does not necessarily make one well-known or understood.
Eitzel began writing songs at the age of fourteen but quickly stopped. He didn't pick up writing "real songs," as he put it, until '84 or '85. From these early roots in songwriting came American Music Club's first record The Restless Stranger.
Although he's proud of all of the band's releases, Eitzel definitely has some problems with the way this album was recorded. The differences between The Restless Stranger and Everclear are cavernous. The former was recorded on eight tracks in two weeks, while the latter was produced in a twenty-four track studio over the span of a couple of months.
The difference in album budgets goes without saying, but, as Eitzel explains, "The idea of running up hundreds of hours of debts puts a whole different edge of recording."
That Everclear is the slickest album of American Music Club's career is no mistake. The band made a conscious effort to make this album more accessible and commercial, and bring their music to a whole new audience.
"You get tired of being accused of being America's biggest secret," states Eitzel. "You kind of get tired of people writing reviews of your records that, I mean, they're really nice reviews, but they've got so many polysyllabic words, you kind of think they're overcompensating for what really lacks on the record."
Though favorable press has accompanied the band wherever they've travelled, Eitzel is frustrated with people pigeon-holing them as "must-listen-to-it-ten-times-before-you-like it" band. Unfortunate as it may seem, American Music Club's obscurity is not limited to the United States. Overseas, even though the Demon records released Eitzel solo album, Songs Of Love Live, unexpectedly made it into the independent top 20 in England, the group has had tremendous problems with distribution, or lack thereof, for its records.
"It's almost impossible to find our records overseas, just like it is here. People in the streets and at our shows ask us 'How can we find your records? I want to buy it, but I can't find it.' We always seem to be dogged by this problem."
One might imagine that Eitzel has grown accustomed to praise, but, because of the slickness of Everclear, his confidence in positive media feedback is somewhat restrained.
"When this album comes out, of course it will be universally panned. And people are going to say blah, blah, blah. It's the first album we've made that I kind of like and it's got all the stuff in it I like. I like cheesy stuff and it's got plenty of that."
Eitzel has a special affinity for one song in particular, "The Dead Part Of You," which contains some of his finest, not to mention un-cheesy, lyrics:
The price of your soul is worth less than the cab fare
That gets you home before the living end
The dead part of you leaves me with a blessing
From the destruction of your beauty
your self-hatred, your self pity
There's so little of you left
The dead part of you takes me out
It says the beast in me is fading fast
It leaves me with a great big goodbye hug
It's clinging to the dead part of the past
Unlike bands that base each composition around a certain groove or current style in music, American Music Club bases its songs wholly around the lyrics and vocal melodies. And, consequently, the more tangled the lyrics and the emotions that they convey, the more intricate the arrangements become.
"Sometimes we'll go from some feedback, sort of a weird spatial thing, into some country and western song."
On stage the band rearranges the songs in the heat of the moment, but improvisation isn't necessarily their strongest attribute.
"Sometimes with the dumber songs, you can go from a blues beat to a reggae beat. It's kind of funny. But it's not really funny. It's kind of pitiful. We've done that before, that's a big mistake. The best thing we'll do about arranging a song is to stop the damn thing before it goes any further. Sometimes it's like kicking a dead horse. The best thing to do is to stop."
The rest of American Music Club is rounded out by Vudi (guitar), Dan Parson (bass, backing vocals), Bruce Kaphan (pedal steel), and new drummer Tim Mooney. All are obviously involved emotionally in the music, but Pearson in particular, became very emotional onstage during a recent gig in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Caught up in a song, Pearson became conspicuously choked up, seeming to fight back tears at points, and concealed his feelings by burying his head in his chest.
"Dan really digs this stuff," Eitzel confesses. "He's the heart of the band. He always surprises me."
Although it's been difficult for Eitzel to deal with the amount of critical praise he's received, this is not to say he doesn't appreciate the compliments. One critic went so far as to call Eitzel Dylan's replacement as American poet laureate. Eitzel finds this statement particularly disturbing. To him, high art and popular art will never be even remotely comparable.
"That's kind of like saying that the guy who writes the dialogue to CHIPs is taking on Shakespeare's role. It's kind of the same thing meaning that Dylan is not a poet laureate, although Dylan is a total genius. I don't get sick of them (the accolades), I love 'em. But I'm afraid of getting used to them. It's just that they're gonna stop coming in. It's kind of like everyone praises a child, but when the child grows up, it turns into a fucking hoodlum .It's the same thing with American Music Club. When we grow up, we're going to turn into this ugly mess."