Saturday, April 24, 2010

Album Review: American Music Club – Mercury

When Mark Eitzel and co finally started to get some plaudits (for 1991’s Everclear), a major label deal and a relatively large recording budget, they reacted in the only way they knew how. They enlisted producer Mitchell Froom to make a somewhat difficult album which bore little resemblance in sound to their previous output!

I prefer to call it a subtle album. Those who fell in love with pedal steel guitar player Bruce Kaphan’s contributions to Everclear would be disappointed here, as he is limited to minimal embellishments here and there.

Gratitude Walks is a classic Eitzel song, opening with piano and some steel guitar, before Eitzel croons lyrical gems like “chains on the oasis that leads a man to drink, drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink.” It’s a classic alcoholic insight that needs no explanation. If I Had A Hammer is probably one of the more conventional songs here, again leading off with piano and same great guitar touches. It’s all going along quite nicely till they throw in a weird bleepy bit in the middle, before Eitzel continues on the theme of the last song, singing “I don’t know if I’ve reached the bottom yet… I feel time pass like a joy I tried so hard to relearn, but somewhere along the line I passed the point of no return.”

Challenger is a total change of pace, with Vudi’s raging, murky guitars before we’re back in familiar territory with I’ve Been A Mess. This song is almost self-parody with Eitzel self-flagellating (“I’ve been a mess since you’ve been gone”) over prominent steel guitar. One of my kids said to me once that it sounds just like me singing on guitar!

Most of the rest of songs are reasonably subtle, albeit many of them with lengthy titles (What Godzilla Said to God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life, The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores), which often bear little relation to the songs themselves. Self-sabotage? If so it’s a thoroughly enjoyable one.

The album is also notable for the presence of Johnny Mathis’ Feet, which is to non-AMC fans, probably the song they are best remembered for. It’s a classic contradiction that it is in fact a fairly atypical song for them, musically at least. It’s pretty much a big ballad, with Eitzel bellowing out a tale of comparing his songs unfavourably with Johnny Mathis, over a big ‘kitchen sink’ style production number which throws in strings, steel guitar and dramatic crescendos.

One of the stranger tracks is the second last one, More Hopes and Dreams, which is a bit of self-indulgence from the band where they recorded sounds from an electrical power station which sounded perfect for the album! The final track, Will You Find Me, is an AMC acoustic-based closer in the vein of Last Harbour from California. It’s downright lovely, with a fragile acoustic guitar riff, sensitive vocals from Eitzel sounding almost at breaking point, and some keyboards which work really well. The middle section with an acoustic guitar solo backed by unconventional guitar work from Kaphan demands to be heard. It’s almost impossibly beautiful, and gives the lie to those who dismiss steel guitar as clichéd country nonsense.

Predictably this sort of stuff did not sell in grunge-era 1993, and from then on American Music Club were doomed to obscurity.