When I saw San Francisco's American Music Club perform on one of their first reunion dates earlier this year, singer Mark Eitzel was in a feisty, chatty mood. And while he's known for his between-song (and sometimes inter-song) monologues, on that night he had a special source of ire: a local weekly indie paper had run a rather cranky capsule preview of the band's performance in which the writer threw out the claim that it was a good thing AMC had finally released a "best of" (the rather spotty, limited-edition 1984-1994) because they had "never made a great record."
The roar of disapproval from the crowd when Eitzel brought this up was one I went along with, the local critic's pronouncement the rare opinion that I will dismiss out of hand. While opinions vary among the AMC faithful as to which of their albums are genuinely great and which are merely very good, I hold California, Everclear and Mercury to all be worthy of the g-word. Their third album, 1988's California, was where the band first began to gel, Eitzel delivering the goods with his mixture of devastatingly morose and hellaciously humorous lyrics over the band's gentle, country-influenced grooves that saw them (mostly) moving past their earlier bar-band sound. Despite the dated, reverb-drenched production Everclear, released in 1991, showed just how a versatile a music-making machine AMC had become, shifting smoothly from easy, emotive ballads to rockabilly and big rock that would make the Waterboys blush. The band's penultimate 20th century album, Mercury, is an atmospheric masterpiece as deadly as the metal and as hot as the planet with which it shares its title.
Upon the band's amiable split in 1995, Eitzel kept a fairly high profile, releasing a series of albums that found him shifting from pose to pose, including jazzman (60 Watt Silver Lining), low-sales adult alternative sellout (the Peter Buck collaboration West), genius (Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby), guy with Pro Tools and some cool ideas (The Invisible Man), and interpreter (the covers album, Music for Courage and Confidence). His live shows, in which he generously showcased his back catalog, grew increasingly erratic, especially when he performed without a band, scarcely picking at his guitar. The last time I saw him play was one of the most disappointing shows I've ever attended, all Eitzel voice and far too little instrumental melody.
So I approached the band's reunion with a sort of hopeful skepticism, wondering if Eitzel's reunion with his old bandmates bassist Dan Pearson, drummer Tim Mooney, ace guitarist Vudi, and keys/horn guy Marc Capelle (an occasional Eitzel solo sideman, replacing Bruce Kaphan, who has chosen to sit the reunion out) would bring him back to the land of the living. The first fruits of this reunion, a download of an early version of eventual Love Songs for Patriots' lead track "Ladies and Gentlemen," left me a bit uneasy, Vudi seemingly MIA as the band pursued a keys-driven jazz-trio sound and Eitzel seemingly sang from the bottom of a deep, deep well. But the live performance this past March dispelled my doubts as American Music Club unveiled nearly a half dozen new songs that seamlessly blended with the band's back catalog, Eitzel confident and nearly giddy as the band stoically soldiered through the set, the faintest hint of rust brushed aside by the players' chops.
Love Songs for Patriots conceals any hint that this is a band finding its way back together, from the much-improved version of "Ladies and Gentlemen" that kicks it off onward. Adding some guitar squawk and skronk and downplaying the jazz angle, this insincere call to arms features a reenergized Eitzel invoking bartenders as usual while challenging us all to confront and celebrate our own inner peacenik. The following track, "Another Morning," is almost the quintessential AMC mid-tempo number, Eitzel eulogizing a lost friend over a guitar-heavy melody, offering a breather to prepare the listener for the leaden brilliance of the album's centerpiece, "Patriot's Heart."
Channeling the spirit of Theodore Dreiser, "Patriot's Heart" looks at the failure of the workaday, up-from-the-bootstraps American dream through the eyes of a male stripper catering to an all-male clientele. Eitzel lends his protagonist full awareness of the game he's playing and his part in the exchange of value, giving direct voice to the dancer's feelings: "After a few tequilas, I become something holy/ And this crappy little bar with its sweating mirrors/ And its mildewed ceiling are more full of love/ Yeah than even natural selection. And dollar for dollar, babe/ It's a better bargain. The more you pay/ The more I can break you all apart."
Devastating, but not as much as Eitzel's narrative assessment of the cynic's own life: "You can see him fade with the dawn in a pile of Washingtons/ His head is in a spin, he's happy to pass out again/ He would rather fade into the static than hear the violins/ That whine like old lovers who whine that they loved him/ He would rather laugh alone in the dark with the soft hands of heaven/ Because they leave him alone with his entertainment system." Or, as PJ Harvey put it a few years ago, the whores hustle and the hustlers whore.
Lonely, occasional lovable losers populate the environs traversed on Love Songs for Patriots, Eitzel deftly mixing tragedy and tragicomedy with some genuinely optimistic moments. The cold, minimalist "Love Is" brings to mind the sleeve of Eitzel's self-released Lover's Leap USA, which bore repeated variations of "I'm sorry" hundreds of times in a small typeset. "Myopic Books" puts Eitzel in his frequent role of the outsider looking in at an indie world, snubbed by unfriendly hipster bookstore clerks a status he finds comforting, if the song is to be believed.
The very, very pretty "Only Love Can Set You Free" features an ultra-fine vocal, Eitzel doing a call-and-response (or, more accurately, a call-and-affirm) vocal on the third verse, other band members harmonizing with him as the chorus approaches, the rhapsodic band leader repeatedly gushing "I've been so lucky" over the song's penultimate moments. Sheer giddy, goofy joy radiates through "The Horseshoe Wreath in Bloom," a country-ish shuffle in which Eitzel sagely concludes: "They say we pardon to the degree we love/ But for most of us, love is only a part in a cartoon." This album is large; it contains multitudes!
On one of Love Songs for Patriot's lesser tracks, the sincere, bombastic "Home," the well-traveled singer (Eitzel has lived in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago over the course of the past decade) acutely observes that his "life [always] looked much better at a distance," while searching for a home, anxiously hoping not to find it "wherever the washed up are hung." Washed up? Far from it; based on the evidence presented here, Mark Eitzel and his band have many more choice songs to bring us. In fact, I'd venture to say that American Music Club have made another great album.