Mark Eitzel has, of course, a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest songwriters working today. That designation “songwriter,” though, tends to focus on a couple of musical qualities (lyrics, and melodic/chordal/structural issues) sometimes to the exclusion of other important aspects of the music. (Or to put it another way: sometimes you’ll hear someone say that so-and-so’s a good songwriter but his or her songs work better when other people do them. In other words, what’s not as good is the elements not traditionally regarded as “songwriter” territory: playing, arranging, performance, sound and recording quality.)
What this means for Eitzel is that his reputation as songwriter eclipses his reputation as a singer and American Music Club’s reputation as arrangers and performers. And in both cases, that’s very unfortunate: Eitzel at his best is one of the best singers around, and (as evidenced by the very fine – but not as impactful – set of solo albums Eitzel recorded during AMC’s breakup) the band is capable of providing extraordinarily effective settings, both for Eitzel’s songwriting as such and for his performances.
To take Eitzel as singer first, here’s a live solo acoustic performance of “Outside This Bar.” The song’s melody is sketchy at first – it seems to emerge almost conversationally, gradually – until the chorus at which point it’s clear this is a song and not a sort of improvisation. That might seem like a weakness – as if it took Eitzel awhile to find the right approach to the melody – but I think it mirrors the song’s mood, more specifically the moment he mentions in the liner notes of Songs of Love Live (where this track is from) that this song is about the “‘turned over a rock’ feeling of emerging from a bar…after drinking 3 or 6 Long Island Ice Teas onto an empty North High Street at 3 on a Sunday afternoon in 100 degrees of heat.” Those of us who are less dedicated drinkers might have experienced a glimmer of this feeling when, if you usually go to movies in the evening, you go to a matinee and then emerge from the theater, momentarily shocked to discover that it’s high daylight still, feeling lost for a moment until you remember that, oh yeah, it is only three in the afternoon. But what kills me is Eitzel’s delivery of the final line after the chorus (interestingly, not in the song’s studio recording): “I remember when your girlfriend would put you on display / Yeah, you’d be the life of the party / You’d be so fucking funny…” On the page, that line reads as a toss-off – but as Eitzel sings it, it’s desperate, exasperated, exhausted, regretful, contemptful, and more – and clearly applies in all those aspects not only to the song’s “you” but to the narrator as well.
So what does the band bring to these songs? On “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” (certainly a title that doesn’t raise too many expectations), Eitzel’s narrator (and with Eitzel, it’s hard to resist the temptation to just say “Eitzel”) conducts an imaginary conversation with Mathis, whom he apparently idolizes, presumably as an avatar of old-school big-American entertainment. (In other words, about as far from AMC’s success and style as can be imagined: I can’t remember which song it was for, but I remember a video the band did that featured them in their usual dank-looking, coffee-brown and grey attire, wandering along a glaringly lit beach with airbrushed Hollywood beach babes and boys, looking as out of place as possible. Glad someone recognizes that Eitzel can be, uh, so fucking funny.) The narrator “lay[s] all [his] songs / at Johnny Mathis’ feet,” and asks Mathis to tell him “how to live.” Mathis at first is contemptuous, asking the narrator, “Why do say everything as if you were a thief / and what you stole has no value…?” This seems to suggest that the problem with the songs is that they’re tentative, that the narrator lacks confidence in them, that he should (unlike a thief, and using some apt jargon) own them, sell them, rather than steal them and hide them. But that’s not it: no, far from opening yourself up, being sincere, being real and all that ’70s Rolling Stone rock-crit rhetoric, “a real showman,” Mathis says, “knows how to disappear in the silk and amphetamine,” “how to disappear in the spotlight.” The band matches Eitzel’s intentionally overblown images (“with a wave of his red-white-and-blue hand across a glittering Hollywood scene”) with a grand slow waltz, mellotron strings and brass, and synthetic timpani accents. The irony, for anyone who knows Eitzel’s songwriting, is that his emotions appear ripped raw; he audibly breaks into tears at the close of his performance of “Western Sky” on the live acoustic album, for example. It’s probably also relevant for Eitzel, who’d fairly recently come out as bisexual around this time, that Mathis is gay – and although the older singer had come out fairly early (in the early ’80s), during his peak years as a singer he was closeted (like nearly everyone else in the 1950s and early 1960s). Eitzel’s narrator feels like a surgical student after the first time a patient he’d worked on dies: if he didn’t care at all, he couldn’t do the work – but if he cares too much, he can’t do the work either. As usual for Eitzel’s narrators, it’s uncertain which costs more: the open-heart surgery of Eitzel’s typical performances, or the heart that’s hidden under silken sleeves, artificially stimulated from its timorous quietude by amphetamines.
The last album recorded by American Music Club before their 2004 reunion (resulting in the excellent album Love Songs for Patriots) is the much-maligned San Francisco. I’ve never gotten the criticism; there seems the usual (high) proportion of fine songs to not-as-fine ones. At any rate, one of my favorites from that album is “What Holds the World Together.” Here you can hear the ghostly interplay between Vudi’s electric guitars and Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel that characterized a lot of their best material, as well as a good example of Eitzel’s sometimes almost jazz-like harmonic sensibility. The odd note on pedal steel that alters the chord right after the first line of the chorus is one of those moments that, simple as it is to describe, causes an entire song to cohere around it, its discord the irritant grain of sand that catalyzes the pearl. At the band’s best, sometimes it’s hard to discern what individual instruments are doing; instead the whole band works as a single sound source, painting the song’s texture along with Eitzel’s words and singing.