AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB – ” The Albums ” A Buyers Guide

Posted: March 4, 2022 in MUSIC

American Music Club an American, San Francisco-based Indie rock band, led by singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel Formed in 1983, the band released seven albums before splitting up in 1995. They reformed in 2003 and released two further albums, Eitzel had been in the Cowboys. Despite the skill and diversity of the other members, Eitzel quickly became the group’s focal point: an evocative vocalist and gutter poet capable of composing songs of disquieting honesty and intensity, he was also frequently the band’s worst enemy a heavy drinker since the age of 16, AMC shows often disintegrated into surreal backdrops for Eitzel’s alcoholic rants and self-destructive showmanship, and throughout the group’s tumultuous career, his erratic behaviour led him to briefly exit their ranks on numerous occasions.

Eitzel founded American Music Club in 1983 with guitarist Scott Alexander, drummer Greg Bonnell and bass player Brad Johnson. The band went through many personnel changes before arriving at a stable line up of guitarist Vudo (Mark Pankler), bassist Danny Pearson, keyboardist Brad Johnson and drummer Matt Norelli. This line-up would change over the next several years, but Eitzel always remained the core of the band in terms of its vocals, lyrics and thematic focus, with Vudi and Pearson accompanying him on guitar and bass.

Along with Galaxie 500 and Low, the band characterized what would become “slowcore,” a style marked by its crawling pace. Lest the band be known solely for its speed, American Music Club lives up to its name by mixing very different types of American music.

The Restless Stranger

Their 1985 debut, “The Restless Stranger” released on Grifter Records establishing the band as major pioneers of slowcore and an early influence on post rock. The Restless Stranger is generally omitted from the official American Music Club discography; their first album, its existence was consistently disavowed by the bandmembers in press releases, interviews, and the like. Although it is by far the weakest release in the AMC canon, the album does have its merits; while the production and arrangements never gel with Mark Eitzel’s songs, there are fleeting moments here which hint at the eclectic brilliance to come. And already Eitzel is a sharp storyteller — years later, he would reprise the opener, “Room Above the Bar,” to heart-breaking effect in an a cappella version on his solo acoustic outing “Songs of Love: Live in London“.

Engine

1987’s “Engine” which saw record producer Tom Mallon as a full-time member. “Engine” is the second album It was jointly released by Frontier Records and Grifter in the US and by Zippo in the UK and Europe in 1987. AMC’s sophomore release marks a significant advancement over “The Restless Stranger”, and offers more than a few of the band’s definitive moments. Much of the due credit goes to producer Tom Mallon, who arranges the record with an intuitive grasp of the anatomical make-up of Mark Eitzel’s burgeoning songcraft; the rest of the credit belongs to Eitzel himself, who offers up some of his first truly great compositions. Chief among them is “Outside This Bar,” a chilling portrait of the hermetically sealed comforts of the drinking life.

The 1998 Warner Bros reissue added three additional tracks from the same period. The artwork for the Zippo UK release features an incorrect track listing, putting the songs in the wrong order.

California

American Music Club earned a solid cult following in Europe on the strength of 1988’s “California” While the band languished in obscurity in their native country, they earned a solid European cult following on the strength of 1988’s “California” a frequently brilliant collection highlighted by the shimmering country and folk accouterments which couched fractured love songs .

With the erratic California, Mark Eitzel’s song writing skills blossom into full maturity. From the pedal steel-inflected opener “Firefly” to the luminous “Western Sky,” the best of his compositions reveal uncommon depth and emotional heft: “Somewhere” cuts with the savage humour of a master storyteller, while “Blue and Grey Shirt,” a memoir is simply devastating, it’s Eitzel’s most heartfelt and powerful composition to date, was the first in a series of devastating chronicles of friends lost to the AIDS epidemic. 

A number of the cuts don’t work at all — the muddy “Bad Liquor” is an indecipherable rant, while “Laughing Stock” is by-the-numbers melodrama — but those that do are nothing short of transcendent.

United Kingdom

The next LP, 1989’s “United Kingdom” was a UK-only release comprising new material, some of which was recorded live at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco. released exclusively in the United Kingdom in 1989 on Frontier Records and Demon Records. American Music Club’s first indisputably great album, the import-only “United Kingdom” is also the band’s most spare and unsettling work. Originally conceived as a collection of site-specific songs (hence the opener, “Here They Roll Down,” which samples the sounds of a freeway off-ramp), the LP instead cobbles together leftover material and live tracks which fuse together into a remarkably cohesive and balanced whole. Among the highlights: “Heaven in Your Hands” ranks firmly as one of Mark Eitzel’s most beautiful and unguarded love songs, while the lounge-flavoured “Hula Maiden” finds the singer at his most perversely comic; the solo acoustic “Never Mind” details an emotional free-fall, while on the lush “Dreamers of the Dream,” Eitzel clings to one of the record’s few rays of hope as though his life depended on it.

The album was recorded primarily for the country, where the band had a larger following than in their native United States, and consists of a mixture of studio and live tracks. “United Kingdom” appeared only in the nation which lent the record its title name: It’s another superb collection drawing on leftover material and live tracks, it featured “The Hula Maiden,” the first recorded fruits of Eitzel’s growing fascination with lounge crooning.

These two albums were described by Ian Canadine in Rock: The Rough Guide as “the band’s two unequivocal masterpieces”

Everclear

In 1991 American Music Club released “Everclear” which has been described as “more polished and radio-friendly” compared to their previous albums, Some critics stating the “slickened production works against the band”, but also cited as the band’s masterpiece. Critical acclaim attracted the attention of several major labels. Put simply, “Everclear” is American Music Club’s masterpiece. Benefiting immensely from improved production values, the album crystallizes the band’s often erratic vision into a unified, endlessly complex whole. While the arrangements are typically diffuse “Crabwalk” is shambling rockabilly, “Royal Cafe” is sweet country-pop, and “Rise” is anthemic alt-rock there is a consistency of tone and a sense of place that runs through these songs that is absent from the band’s other records. Similarly, Mark Eitzel’s compositions achieve an uncommon emotional balance, never once slipping into pathos or melodrama; the atmospheric “Miracle on 8th Street” and “The Confidential Agent” offer cinéma vérité evocations of relationships at the breaking point, while the brute force of alcoholic laments like “Sick of Food” or the funereal “Why Won’t You Stay” is staggering never before or since has this loser been quite so beautiful.

American Music Club masterpiece, “Everclear” a remarkable song cycle released to phenomenal critical acclaim (and the usual negligible commercial interest). Still, the lavish praise heaped on “Everclear” (named in honour of a vicious, 180-proof transparent liquor) finally made the major labels take notice, and the bidding war ensued.

Rolling Stone called it the Album of the Year and named Eitzel Songwriter of the Year for 1991. Eventually, AMC—now consisting of Eitzel, Vudi, Pearson, multi-instrumentalist Bruce Kaphan and drummer  Tim Mooney. Now signed with Reprise Records in the US and Virgin Records throughout the rest of the world

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Mercury

The album “Mercury” produced by Mitchell Froom followed in 1993 and, despite positive reviews (although Canadine considered it over-produced), the album only reached number 41 on the UK Album charts and got little radio and television exposure. “Mercury“, was a typically iconoclastic effort featuring unwieldy song titles like “What Godzilla Said to God When His Name Wasn’t Found in the Book of Life” and “The Hopes and Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores” resting uneasily against lush, obtuse gems like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Apology for an Accident,” and “Johnny Mathis’ Feet.” Despite glowing reviews, “Mercury” fared poorly on the charts, and earned virtually no recognition from radio or MTV. 

Leave it to American Music Club to make their major-label bow with the most perversely idiosyncratic record in their catalogue. Produced with eccentric panache by Mitchell Froom, “Mercury” spotlights the band at their darkest and most eclectic, favouring odd rhythms, bizarre effects, and extreme arrangements ranging from the synthetic lounge grandeur of the worshipful “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” to the swirling sonic maelstrom of the fatalistic “Challenger.” Under the cover of defense-mechanism titles like “If I Had a Hammer” and “The Hopes of Dreams of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores,” Mark Eitzel paints some of his bleakest portraits to date; even the most superficially upbeat tracks — “Keep Me Around,” “Hollywood 4-5-92,” “Over and Done” are relentlessly grim at their core. A triumph of abject misery.

A triumph of abject misery.

San Francisco

In 1994, American Music Club issued “San Francisco” which balanced confessional tunes like “Fearless” and “The Thorn in My Side Is Gone” alongside more accessible offerings such as “Wish the World Away”.

Regrettably, with their final effort, “San Francisco”, American Music Club went out with a whimper, not a bang. An undeveloped, erratic collection of songs, the record suffers under the weight of overly slick, commercial arrangements, and production which renders tracks like “It’s Your Birthday,” “Wish the World Away,” and “Hello Amsterdam” as bland alterna-rock; only the effervescent “Can You Help Me?” manages to absorb and transcend its glossy pop veneer. Still, Mark Eitzel goes down swinging, conjuring a handful of haunting gems — the best cuts on “San Francisco“, from the luminous opener “Fearless” to the achingly tender “The Thorn in My Side Is Gone,” are also the most simple; AMC never needed adornment, just a sympathetic ear.

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Love Songs For Patriots

The band disbanded in 1995, with Eitzel concentrating on his solo career, having already released a solo live album and an EP as side projects The band reunited in 2003, with Eitzel joined by Pearson and Mooney, and later Vudi and keyboard player Marc Capelle, to record a new album, “Love Songs For Patriots” released in 2004), which is described as “a stronger and more coherent effort than the group’s last set, 1994’s San Francisco, and while it’s too early to tell if this is a new start or a last hurrah for AMC, it at least shows that their formula still yields potent results. Here’s hoping Eitzel and Vudi have more where this came from.

Reunion albums are often tricky affairs, usually based around negative circumstances (typically solo career slumps) rather than positive ones, so it’s neither uncommon nor unwise for fans to approach them with a degree of caution. When American Music Club called it quits in 1995, most folks were expecting an impressive solo career from vocalist and songwriter Mark Eitzel, but while he failed to capture the brass ring of a breakthrough commercial success (no great surprise, given the downbeat tenor of his music, though Warner Bros. seemed to be hoping otherwise at first), the greatest problem that’s dogged him since AMC’s demise has been his difficulty in finding a consistent set of sympathetic musical collaborators.

Listening to American Music Club’s first album in ten years, “Love Songs for Patriots”, what’s most immediately striking is the way the fusion of beauty and chaos generated by the musicians so ideally mirrors Eitzel’s songwriting, and how keenly their contribution has been missed in his solo work. While American Music Club was often regarded as Mark Eitzel and four other guys during their initial lifetime, the jagged panoramas of Vudi’s guitar and the patient but ominous report of Dan Pearson’s bass and Tim Mooney’s drums create such perfect settings for these songs here that you sense this was that rare reunion prompted by aesthetics above all else, and this album truly succeeds on a creative level. The absence of Bruce Kaphan’s evocative pedal steel work is felt (especially the way he at once buffered and strengthened Vudi’s pillars of sound), but Marc Capelle’s keyboards fill their space well enough, and while Eitzel’s songwriting has changed a bit since the last time American Music Club went into the studio (the dark sexuality of “Patriot’s Heart” and the first-person vignette of “Myopic Books” are the clearest examples), this band still knows more of what to make of his sensuous depression than anyone else, and both songwriter and musician bring out the best in one another on this set. “Love Songs for Patriots” isn’t an American Music Club masterpiece in the manner of “Everclear” or “Mercury”, but it’s certainly a stronger and more coherent effort than the group’s last set, 1994’s “San Francisco“, and while it’s too early to tell if this is a new start of a last hurrah for AMC, it at least shows that their formula still yields potent results. Here’s hoping Eitzel and Vudi have more where this came from.

In June 20th, 2007, AMC announced a new line-up connected to the band’s base of operations moving to Los AngelesEitzel and Vudi remained, while Mooney and Pearson stayed behind in San Francisco.  They were replaced by bassist Sean Hoffman and drummer Steve Didelot from the band the Larks.

The Golden Age

AMC’s next record, entitled “The Golden Age” was released in the UK on February 4th, 2008, on Cooking Vinyl Records.

The news is that Mark Eitzel and Vudi have resurrected American Music Club for the first time since 2004’s “Love Songs for Patriots” (which was in turn the group’s first album in a decade), but they haven’t gone terribly far out of their way to do it — while pedal steel player Bruce Kaplan was absent from the Love Songs line-up, on 2008’s “The Golden Age”, Eitzel and Vudi are the only holdovers from the band’s original membership, with debuting bassist Sean Hoffman and percussionist Steve Didelot completing this new, leaner edition of AMC. While “Love Songs” attempted to evoke the grand, noisy soundscapes of albums like “Everclear” and “Mercury”“The Golden Age” harks back to the more arid atmospherics of “California” and “United Kingdom”, and it does so quite well.

Anyone hoping for a big dose of Vudi’s fractured guitar heroics will go wanting as he aims for a more subdued tone on most tracks, saving his more outré effects for the codas of “On My Way” and “The Windows on the World.” But this is easily the best set of songs Eitzel has offered since his 2001 solo effort, “The Invisible Man“, and his vocals are in superb form; while much of his work since AMC’s breakup seemed to find him looking for a new direction, these 13 songs are just the sort of thing he does best, compelling tales of lost souls and busted hearts that reveal as much compassion as despair, and he delivers them with a weary but heartfelt authority that few others could match. And if this album doesn’t break much new ground or challenge anyone’s expectations of American Music Club, it also offers a clear and honest reminder of why this band made so much vital, lasting music during its original lifetime; “The Golden Age” may simply be the Eitzel and Vudi show, but that’s more than enough to make this a rich and rewarding set of songs whose gentle surfaces belie their troubling strength.

TitleRelease dateLabelUK Albums Chart
The Restless Stranger1985Grifter
EngineOctober 1987Grifter/Zippo
CaliforniaOctober 1988Demon/Frontier
United KingdomOctober 1989Demon
EverclearOctober 1991Alias
MercuryMarch 1993Virgin41
San FranciscoSeptember 1994Reprise72
Love Songs for PatriotsSeptember 2004Merge99
The Golden Age

Also check out the following:

1984–1985

Over And Done

The Mercury Band Demos April 1992

The Everclear Rehearsals Late 1990

Atwater Afternoon” was a limited edition CD released by the band American Music Club and initially sold on the tour to promote their album “The Golden Age“. Half of it was a recording of the band rehearsing songs for the tour and the other half was studio recordings of new songs. The initial run of 300 copies came with either blank covers or covers featuring pictures drawn by the band members. Once these had sold out, it was repressed in an edition of 1500 and sold from the band’s web site.

Two of the original songs on the album were written by members of the band other than Mark Eitzel. Neither has been released elsewhere. The name of the album relates to the area in Los Angeles where the recording took place.

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