Saturday, February 6, 2010

Album Review: American Music Club – California

Warning: this is one of my favourite albums ever, so don’t expect objectivity. American Music Club’s third album, California represented a change in direction from the fuller sound of previous album Engine, with acoustic guitars featuring a lot more prominently this time around. Released in 1988, it starts with Firefly, which heavily features the sound of a pedal steel guitar. Deeply unfashionable at the time, it paved the way for the ‘alt-country’ movement of the early ‘90s. The melody is an easy, vaguely poppy melody. Somewhere follows which is a little more generic, kind of ‘bog-standard’ alternative rock. That is until you listen to the lyrics, singer Mark Eitzel’s key line here is “we’ve got a lot to lose and maybe we can lose it all tonight”.

The heart of the album starts with Laughingstock (sic) which creeps in on a brittle guitar figure. It’s a particularly yearning song, and it, like others on the album are songs to cling to on a dark, sleepless night. Lonely follows, an anthem to self-loathing (key line “if I have to be this lonely I may as well be alone” over a vaguely REM guitar line (played by Vudi).

What spoils the album somewhat is that the production is a little weak, it’s not a particularly strong sounding album, so you really have to listen to the songs to avoid the songs drifting by without noticing them. When you do take the time to listen, Pale Skinny Girl contains some great echoey, distorted electric guitar. Blue and Grey Shirt follows, which is another late-night Eitzel classic. The hopeless yearning here is quite something to behold (key line: “I’m tired of being a spokesman for every tired thing”), enhanced by pedal steel that avoids the usual country pitfalls of cheesiness, before concluding that he “just sing my songs for people who are gone from now on”. It’s heart-breaking stuff.

Bad Liquor is totally out of step with the rest of the album and is a kind of rant over heavy sounding guitars, possible an attempt at a radio-friendly track, but it shatters the mood. The rest of the album returns to an introspective mood, with one classic after another. Now You’re Defeated sees Eitzel lamenting that he “thought there was more to life than finishing a drink”. It’s quite resigned yet the vocal delivery is sung with real passion. Jenny is a Nick Drake-esque acoustic guitar dominated song sung to the aforementioned Jenny who finds herself at “another stupid party again”, sung and played with real sensitivity.
Western Sky contains a wonderful guitar line which soars in, accompanied by a fine vocal performance from Eitzel. It’s kind of celebratory, in a miserable sort of way. Shades of Morrissey on this one, indeed Smiths/Morrissey comparisons could be made on much of this album, particular the following track Highway 5. Eitzel moans agreeably on this one, over some heavily distorted guitars. The final track, Last Harbor is a real dark night of the soul track. Eitzel pours his guts out, singing “falling, falling I don’t see the bottom” over descending, plucked guitar. There’s no coming back after this one.

Much of this album is where the band and Eitzel in particular built their songwriting reputation on. There are songs of real depth here, which reward repeated listening, and Eitzel has continued in this vein for the rest of his career, without commercial achievement, but with great artistic success.