The Omaha Weekly - May 22, 2002
Mark Eitzel: An Oldie But A Goodie
Publication: The Omaha Weekly
Author: Tim McMahan
Date: May 22, 2002
They don't make them like they used to. Pop songs, that is.
After forging a cult-like career in the subterranean world of indie music, singer songwriter Mark Eitzel has come to the realization that the days of the classic ballad have passed.
"The idea of smart people writing songs for the masses is over," he said. "The masses don't really want to hear them." Maybe not, but Eitzel still wants to sing them.
The San Francisco native took a break from the putty and spackle of fixing up his Bay City home last week to talk about it. Eitzel hoped to get his place rented out before leaving on the tour that brings him to Sokol Underground Thursday, May 23. Now it didn't looking like he would get it done in time. "I'm going back to work on this after I'm done with you," he said, adding that he can't afford to live there anymore. "I wish I could afford it, but I can't. I'm just broke."
This despite the fact that Eitzel is considered one of the best songwriters to come out of underground music in the '90s. He first made a name for himself as the frontman for American Music Club, a five-piece rock outfit whose music had all the appeal of a lonely hangover, like waking up on the floor of a bar and finding that you've lost your whole life, again. The band built a cult following on its slow and abrasively dark brand of quiet rock that has been compared to Red House Painters, though the only thing the two bands really have in common is Mark Kozelek's low, throaty vocal style.
After a number of critically acclaimed albums that failed to find an audience beyond the underground, AMC called it quits in the mid-'90s and Eitzel continued on his stark musical journey flying solo. Then last year, his music took a decided shift in a more-poppy direction on his Matador release The Invisible Man, where the king of gloom stepped out of his dark, sullen robe and adorned himself in a fine jacket of hooky melodies, trip-hop-style rhythms and inspired vocals that, for the first time, could appeal even to the most radio-friendly crowd. It didn't, but it could have, had they heard it.
Now with Music For Courage And Confidence, just released on New West Records, Eitzel has taken his newfound pop leanings to another level, paying tribute to some of the most memorable melodies of the past half-century. Among the 10 covers on the CD: Anne Murray's "Snowbird", Glen Campbell's "Gentle On My Mind", The Andrea True Connection's "More More More" and Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" not to mention standards like "I'll Be Seeing You" and "I Only Have Eyes For You". Quite an eclectic mix, all held together by Eitzel's personal, drawn, reflective musical style.
"Johan Kugelberg (who co-produced the CD), a bon vivant and excellent conversationalist, persuaded me to do it," Eitzel explained. "He gave me a list of songs and I rejected 90 percent of them. We chose songs that were lighter; something different where I could focus on singing. I could have chosen obscure Blue Nile tracks, but I didn't want to be cool. I wanted songs I really loved -- fucking hits -- as opposed to 'Let me let you in on my understanding of music.'"
His rendition of "More More More", the huge '70s disco standard, sounds like it was recorded in an underwater sex lair. "I was traveling in a car and on the radio was the voice of god as a porn director," Eitzel said about the original. Like all the songs on the CD, he first worked up his version on a computer before entering the studio. "I had a real image in my mind of what I wanted. The attempt was 'Let's let people hear that this is God creating the planet.' I wasn't talented enough to pull it off."
Listening to the CD becomes an indie version of Name That Tune, seeing just how long it takes to recognize the melodies. Sometimes it's immediate, like on his cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through The Night", or Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine". But sometimes, like on his blue-light-vibed Culture Club cover or the Sominex-flavored cover of "Snowbird", it could take a few minutes to figure out where he's going.
"The whole thing was to not condescend the songs or insult the writers, to not make a joke of it," Eitzel said. "Everything was taken very seriously."
Some of the CD's best moments come on some of the more obscure covers, such as his jazzy, trumpet-fueled take on Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" or the perfectly simple arrangement of Phil Ochs' "Rehearsals For Retirement".
"Ochs was an amazing writer totally in the shadow of Bob Dylan in the '60s," Eitzel said. "He said songwriting is like newspaper reporting, and I loved his lyrics. But all the arrangements of his music were done like that whole florid, late-'60s symphonic crap. I stripped it down to the basics."
Only time will tell whether covering the pop classics will influence Eitzel's usually dour, personal songwriting style. "It's great singing these covers," he said. "These songs are simple; most are just the same chord changes over and over. On my next CD I'm going toward a more storytelling style and also making more big ballads with big melodies."
"The idea of smart people writing songs for the masses is over. The masses don't really want to hear them."
But despite that, Eitzel said the days of big, memorable ballads are over. "There are two kinds of songs out there today," he said, "the Britney Spears product songs that are more of a lifestyle accessory; and hip hop, which is like Dylan times 1,000 without his poetry. To reach people now you have to turn everything up to 11. People are not interested in music. They have bought this idea that you are what you're marketed to, and it's really a shame."
But what about the indie rock world, where Eitzel as a solo artist and as part of American Music Club forged his reputation? Although there are probably more indie rock bands performing today than ever before, few are producing anything of significance. "Indie rock died when people stopped dancing to it," Eitzel said. "It's sort of a weird boutique thing to write songs these days."
He pointed to the so-called "new model" of the dot-com boom. "Everyone gets their own radio channel, it's like music is a service that you'll subscribe to. So you end up knowing everything about some minor thing, but nothing about what else is out there. People don't understand how inertia fuels them. Everyone can be marketed, but so what? If you have nothing to compare yourself to or nothing you love that is great or that perhaps refers back to something from 20 years ago, you're going to create crap because what you're coming from is so limited.
"In the '60 and '70s, they were trying to tell the story of the era and make as much money as they could and have people listen to it," he said. "It was possible because they could get their music on the radio. Now it would never get on the radio or TV. You either have lots of payola or you have to become a whore."
Sounds hopeless, but not to Eitzel. "I talk like this but I still love it," he said. "I love songwriting as an art and pop form. Besides, what else would I do?"