Puncture - February 1990
American Music Club
Publication: Puncture (#18)
Author: Steve Connell
Date: February 1990
There have always been bands who provide their supporters with enormous pleasure while at the same provoking reactions of puzzlement, even rejection, on the part of other listeners. Any really good band will do this to some extent. But in the case of American Music Club, the reactions for and against are unusually strong. Their songs seem to strike uncommitted ears as depressing, unsettling. Yet their remarkable qualities seem to me so undeniable that they demand some investigation.
The band members themselves are clearly a little perturbed by some of those reactions. "Why is everyone so worried and confused about our music?" asks vocalist/songwriter Mark Eitzel.After all, he continues, "it's completely middle of the road, easy listening! If they said it was boring, that would be fine..." He's exaggerating, but the musical framework of their songs is certainly one of the reasons AMC has not yet found the response I believe they merit.
The stylings the band employ on their third album California are stripped-down country - and folk-rock, with only a couple of uptempo, more obviously rock songs. Mostly they're smooth, spare settings for Eitzel's vocals, frameworks within which his voice can range, shaping and pointing up his words with rare sensitivity.
And on the United Kingdom LP, released (only in the UK) in late 1989, the musical styles are little more than sketchy notations - the songs exist almost exclusively in their words and vocal melodies. Eitzel claims he doesn't care that much what their music sounds like:
"It sounds middle of the road - I like that, it's not a bad thing. I'd rather it sounded like Neil Young, but that's not me. We don't really even have a 'sound'."
Except that of course their almost non-style is a style. (Just as their name is almost a non-name - according to one interview I read, they chose it because it was the most boring name they could think of. There's a certain bloody mindedness at work here.) And their non-style is in its way just as identifiable as Neil Young's is. Though it's certainly harder to grab onto, it can ultimately become wholly compelling.
If AMC are not yet more widely appreciated, it's partly because of these very qualities - at least in relation to the independent rock sector they've been operating in. Some people just don't get it. They confuse the lyricism, the relatively conventional tunes, and Eitzel's thought-out (though certainly not conventional) vocal delivery with mainstream musical styles their indie allegiance seems to compel them to dislike. California should have had the kind of impact on the indie world that Zen Arcade, Surfer Rosa, Atomiser, or Locust Abortion Technician had in their day. But it didn't fit the prevailing musical picture.
Then, too, many of Eitzel's lyrics are intensely and nakedly emotional - and they're further exposed by their spare instrumental settings. (Husker Du could get away with their unabashed emotionalism because it was encased for the most part in a joyous din.) This kind of combination of subject matter and musical setting isn't entirely new - there's the tradition of torch singers, like Billie Holiday or Judy Garland, and elements of country music - but it's pretty uncommon in rock and roll.
There's a widespread tendency in the rock world to regard those who map out the territory of emotional pain and loss as freaks or neurotics (for a recent example, check out the press coverage of Mary Margaret O'Hara) - a sure sign that we're not keen to admit these are universal but difficult issues. Most people only confront those feelings in the immediate aftermath of what caused them; the rest of the time they want or need to forget that such feelings and situations occur.
But then there's the people who recognize the importance of these feelings and want to look them in the eye, explore them - or just can't get away from them. This kind of exploration got a bad name as a result of the self-indulgent (and musically often bland) output of a generation of singer/songwriters. But at it's best, it has produced records like Nick Drake's Bryter Later, the third Big Star (Alex Chilton) album, and John Cale's Music for a New Society.
It's easier to listen to sappy/happy songs (the usual pop approach) - or gross and cynical ones (most metal ones, Big Black, etc.) - than the lyrics Eitzel, O'Hara and a few others of their caliber come up with. It's been cool to write songs about fucking, but not about everything that goes on before and afterwards. It's all too tempting to repress the knowledge of emotional pain - and you can do that either by pretending that everything usually works out, or by claiming that everything is fucked. Both are convenient - and often enabling - illusions. If you try to look at things straight, without illusions, people dismiss you as depressing. This happens a lot in reviews of American Music Club.
"I don't get this 'depressing' crap," Eitzel says. "Even in England (where AMC have been well received) the music papers ended up mentioning Ian Curtis every time - Ian Curtis, two words I'm getting to hate more than any other two words ever written." Not that he didn't like Joy Division - it's a resistance to the label of unremitting gloom critical shorthand has since assigned to them.
For Eitzel, it comes down to honesty ("the only talent it takes to write a song"), and accuracy: "When you write a song, you try to pinpoint the emotion, and emotions don't have grey areas - they're cul-de-sacs you fall into.You're left there until they go away. You can't talk about emotions without talking about how there's no way out of them."
In fact, American Music Club songs cover a wide range of emotional states. For example, there's a strong (if sometimes rather desperate) vein of humour. Like the nightmarish Hawaiian vacation narrated on "The Hula Maiden," or "Somewhere," in which the central character urges on his partner: "Come on, let's go out and get really drunk tonight/You can be Miss Bottomless Pit of 1983/And I can be Mr. Out Like a Light." But mostly there are incisive, realistic evocations of the ins and outs of desire, sometimes bleak, sometimes cautiously optimistic, as finely balanced between sympathy and ironic observation as they are between the irreconcilable aspirations they explore ("I like songs like that ...that's how things are.")
Take "[[Heaven Of Your Hands" (on United Kingdom): "It's meant to be an uplifting song. I respect country songs which can be about the saddest things - even though they don't describe them very well - and they're happy! I wanted 'Heaven' to be like that. I just kept obsessing about how pathetic it is when there's no other heaven than in someone's hands, it's a real drag..."
Perhaps what distinguishes AMC most from their peers is the way their songs give the lyrics the space to speak for themselves. They never seem to force them into any predetermined style (where the words are simply said, at the same time as the music). Eitzel accepts this, seeing a song as "a form of communication": "What I try to do is make the words and the music transparent to the meaning."
This puts a large burden on the vocals to carry each song, but AMC can do this: Eitzel's voice is perhaps their greatest asset. It's powerful but flexible, able to shift in tone and intensity so as to move with and accent the lyrics.
This strength is more apparent than ever on United Kingdom. The arrangements have few orthodox rhythm parts and little conventional guitar work. (There are practical as well as aesthetic reasons for this, it turns out.) The mood is largely created by picked acoustic and electric guitar and occasional slide, with washes of keyboards here and there; bass and drums, when present at all, tend to provide colour for the dominant melody rather than enforce a rhythm.
United Kingdom wasn't exactly intended to turn out like this. The original intention was to produce a live record for rush release in Europe in support of a lengthy tour there. There are a couple of live recordings on the album, but the rest is new studio material.......
So what happened?
"The live material sounded like shit, and we didn't play some of the songs very well. We thought originally that we could make a good record by doing all our best songs live - as an introduction for European audiences - and that it would have all our loud electric bar songs. Then we listened to the tapes, and we were amazed and stunned at how bad it sounded. Even if a song did sound good, the snare didn't come through on the tape, or the voice was eq'd badly. Then we decided we didn't want any loud rock stuff on the record; we didn't want to sell that stuff...."
Did you have to come up with some new songs real fast, or were they already written?
The more rock and roll songs...
"Right. We decided that there wouldn't be any on this record. We thought, do we wanna make the kind of music that's popular - or the kind of stuff we'd want to listen to? We do have new rock songs, like "Make Up" and "Crabwalk", and we rehearsed all the material, but we just got bored with the rock songs. Unless you're drunk or fucked up, or just young, with lots of hormones going - which we're not - rock is just boring..."
Is that why there's hardly any electric guitar on United Kingdom?
"There's actually more than you'd think - we just didn't want it to sound like electric guitar. And there's piano. Vudi (the band's principal guitarist) did that, and the synths, and lead guitar. Dan (Pearson) and I did the other guitar parts."
It must have been rather rushed...
"Right. We only had a month. That's why some of the songs are without the full band. Three to four weeks, and that includes looking at the live stuff, trying to make it fit."
There are car noises at the beginning of "Here They Roll Down". Where did you record them?
"By the freeway right outside the studio. That song started out with the freeway noise. I wrote it for that on-ramp. I was going to write a whole album of those songs, site-specific songs which would give you an impression of each place, like on top of a fifteen-story building. But I only wrote four of them..."
Did you sit in the place to write the song?
You've worked all along with Tom Mallon - as producer and later as a band member too, first on drums, then on bass. How did that start, and how does it work?
"Tom was my roommate in 1982, 1983. AMC was an acoustic band back then. He already had his studio. He was working on the Toiling Midgets' Sea of Unrest album, that was his big project at the time. He sticks with the band - it's a big problem of his. He used to get lots of offers to do other jobs, until he stopped answering the phone, sold his message machine. Tom only wants to record the things he likes, he's even done things almost for free, or as cheap as possible, if he likes the music. He's been broke for ages. He set up the label (Grifter) to do the first AMC record."
American Music Club start recording their next album in January. It is likely to be released via one of those increasingly common hookups of an independent label with the major's distribution system, so perhaps its chances of success will not be so heavily subject to the limited tolerance of the narrow-church "alternative" public. Of course, there are different pitfalls with the major route, but in AMC's case it has to be worth trying. Anything that could bring this band to the attention of the largest possible audience has to be worth trying.
Meanwhile, Mark Eitzel is still trying to figure out why people are so worried by AMC:
"Maybe they find it cloying - like an overweight twelve year old boy you meet at his parents' cocktail party. He has this lugubrious thing he wants to show you, like his science project - it's this boring, clumsy model of a volcano. And after your patronizing attitude towards it wears off, you're left confronting this stupid kid and his ugly volcano, and it's dark in the room, and you want to get back to the cocktail party 'cause you need more gin..."
With a little luck, he won't have to ponder this question much longer. Hey, nobody tells John Cale to lighten up...