AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB San Francisco (Virgin)

Comfort blanket number seven from top San Franciscan purveyors of what the Sunday Times memorably christened "sadcore": admittedly, the distinctly minor-key world of American Music Club isn't exactly a barrel of laughs, but how can any band that fashions song titles like "I Just Took Two Sleeping Pills And Now I'm Like A Bridegroom Standing At The Altar" be accused of being humourless? And compared to competitors like the Red House Painters, for example, they sound almost sprightly.

As ever, "San Francisco" is woven around singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel's woozy observations of life's dark corners and dropouts, from an elegy for a dying friend to a celebration of an American Abba covers band's unsuccessful Amsterdam gig. Musically, they sound like an amateur R.E.M. at the wrong speed, with steel guitars, tablas and mandolins unravelling in the mix. About a quarter of the album is very good: the dangerously upbeat "Can You Help Me", for example, but the rest is merely adequate - not bad, just a little too unfocussed to make a definite impression. Sadly, "San Francisco" fails to top their best effort, last year's "Mercury", but for those who need a regular fix of AMC, it'll do just fine.


A non-chronological career-spanning (well, prior to their 2003 reformation, at least) compilation, I didn’t dare leave the Baltimore record shop I discovered “1984-1995” in without it. (I’ve since discovered that it’s also available from the band’s own website.) The sound quality lacks the ultimate in transparency and volume, suggesting that we might be further from the master tapes than is generally desirable (corroborated by the booklet’s admission that “We used the best available source materials from the band’s personal collections and archives. In some cases the only available source was not as hi-fi as we hoped”) but Mark Eitzel’s velveteen angst shines undimmed through the occlusion. Heck, in a world built to my blueprint people currently sedated by the dinner party politics of Keane and Coldplay would derive their emotional succour from American Music Club instead. (And from The Blue Nile as well, obviously.)

The legion of highlights includes “If I Had A Hammer”, a gently devastating portrayal of a person crumbling from disease that matches the abilities of the Pet Shop Boys’ glitzier “Being Boring” to rend hearts. “Nightwatchman” is all jagged drama and lapping waves of heartbreak, and “Laughing Stock” a masterpiece of hushed subtlety – think early R.E.M. without the self-conscious enigmatic distancing. “Chanel #5”, a mere backwoods b-side in the band’s discography, is a shattering portrayal of a woman’s struggle for dignity in the face of abuse, and the piercing pedal steel that lacerates “Firefly” locates it squarely in the mother lode of what we now know as Americana. Halfway to upbeat, the kicker is the chorus’ rug-pulling final line: “You’re so pretty baby/You’re the prettiest thing I know/You’re so pretty baby/Where did you go?”. “Challenger” sounds uncharacteristically brash, perhaps as a sop to the grunge trend that prevailed at the time of its emergence, perhaps because it best underlines the mid-air alpha male breakdown storyline. There’s a kind of “Pink Moon” hush hovering over “Kathleen”, recorded live but you’d hardly credit it from the stunned lack of reaction. By the time Eitzel reaches the lines “Your love Kathleen is for someone/That I swear I could have been” his voice is cracked and hoarse, cords jangling.

Perhaps the real find of the set, “Memo From Bernal Heights” is a shanty-esque “Mercury” b-side written and sung by mercurial, mysterious guitarist Vudi. Great enough to make me wonder why there isn’t more of his songwriting in the American Music Club discography, I can’t get the sneering putdown of “You live in honky tonks and discotheques/You think that’s livin’, boy/You don’t know how” out of my head. Eitzel freely admits to copping the idea for “Western Sky” from Nick Drake’s “Northern Sky”: it’s a debt elegantly repaid, its yearning articulacy somewhat at odds with its fumbled emotions. The gorgeous “Why Won’t You Stay” is a shabby lounge lizard soul ballad – think an angst-ridden Al Green, perhaps – the singer worn down to a husk, settling for sleep but shooting for togetherness. “Last Harbor” is the journey’s rightful conclusion, a song that sounds right at the end of something, be it a book, a film, an album or a relationship, what little’s left after all the conflict and unpleasantness has been wrung from the situation. “Are you gonna be my last harbour?”, he pleads, not a shred of hope remaining.

Perhaps because of its niche nature – the intent was to distribute “1984-1995” at gigs as well as via the website – a healthy smattering of rarities are stirred into the selection from the band’s regular albums (many of which are themselves currently out of print). Unfortunately, most are foggy-sounding drum-machine addled demos from the band’s major label years, and not staggeringly essential. Still, pretty much all American Music Club is good American Music Club, and in all honesty you could shuffle virtually any 80-minute playlist from their back catalogue and create an astonishing CD. If there are flaws in “1984-1995” they’re just the inevitable personal grumbles at particular omissions – I would’ve made space for “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” and “I Broke My Promise”, at least. Nevertheless, mashing up the brilliant and unavailable from one of the greatest, perfectly imperfect bands ever to roam the planet, this is still an astonishing, treasurable collection.


“We’re gonna start in a mellow way and then work ourselves up a little bit because that’s how it kinda feels in her. If you wanna hear rock right now let me know.” (Silence, punctuated by a few half-hearted yells of “Rock!”; one wag calls for “Challenger”.) “That wasn’t very enthusiastic for the rock. We’ll just continue on our own journey through the songs.” So begins American Music Club’s first official live album, recorded at a November 2004 Pittsburgh gig, and there, in a nutshell, is the delicate bond that twines band and audience together. “A Toast To You” bears witness to their utter rejection of the mores of live performance, in that it does indeed start quietly and heads slowly and gradually in the direction of rock. Even as an official release it seems as though this disc is shrinking away from its responsibility to entertain: available only from the band’s website (and, as with the “1984-1995” compilation reviewed elsewhere, a certain Baltimore record store) it features as close to no information about the performance as possible, and appears to have been hamfistedly spliced together by an engineer equipped with boxing gloves and a pair of scissors. Nevertheless, none of this can disguise how adept the 21st century American Music Club are at conjuring up the desolate abandonment of the 20th century American Music Club’s records.

“Why Won’t You Stay?”, the none-less-rock opener, remains a sigh and a shrug of a song, albeit here emboldened by Mark Eitzel’s robust baritone that, in concert, rises to an almost Costelloesque stridency above the band’s slowly shifting canvas of sadness. And I’ve never noticed before how melodically similar it is to “Gratitude Walks”, which rubs up against it here (rechristened “Gratitude Walks On 6th St.”), performed with a jazzy looseness characteristic of the best of Eitzel’s solo work. “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” is a brilliantly pitched combination of showbiz glamour, decay and lacerating wit. On the “Mercury” version “Johnny looked at my old collection of punk rock posters”, here “I showed Johnny all my old collection of American Music Club posters”. If it doesn’t muster all the diamond-encrusted sweep of the studio reading its battered honesty makes it equally endearing. “Blue And Gray Shirt” is quietly devastating, ragged and loose but deeply poignant, “Western Sky” slow and stately with gravitas. And with the crackling, vacant desperation of “Outside This Bar” they finally reach the rock.

The backbone of “A Toast To You”, though, consists of songs premiered on last year’s “Love Songs For Patriots”. That album disappointed me on first acquaintance, but this grittier, gutsier concert suite is deeply impressive, festooned with glittering moments such as Eitzel’s klaxon wail of “I’ve been so lucky” during “Only Love Can Set You Free”. “Another Morning” has the self accusatory rush of another Kathleen (Burns, Eitzel’s muse, lover and “the only woman who was all women to me”, who died of an overdose in 1998) song – “Your broken heart might bring you heaven/But it will not bring you another morning/Another morning with Kathleen” - and it almost sounds like a last kiss goodbye. “Patriot’s Heart” is seething, vitriolic, perhaps the closest Eitzel has come to Dylan’s “long piece of vomit”, seeking truth and comfort in the tawdry environs of a gay strip joint. Against all this “Myopic Books” is shattering, exhausting almost, in its loveliness, a delicate first-person meditation about his late mother and an idealised bookshop where surly assistants spin Dinosaur Jr albums. There are also a smattering of what are billed as “Amusing Interlude”s, featuring Eitzel’s perhaps unlikely attempts at stand-up, riffing nervously about drugs and sex.

For all its quirks and faults “A Toast To You” makes a fine, if unconventional, live album. But really, as it features one of the world’s greatest bands performing some of the world’s greatest songs, how can it fail?

AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB / BEE AND FLOWER Manchester Academy 3 6 February 2008

I felt almost embarrassed for Berlin-based Americans Bee And Flower. Their “Hello Manchester!” –style entreaties generated absolutely no response, and their first song ended without even the suggestion of a smattering of polite applause: I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience pay so little attention to a support band. (And to think that the band’s leading lady actually congratulated us on being livelier than the Leeds audience they’d played for the night before!)

On CD Bee And Flower sound a bit like Mazzy Star morphed with Alpha, wispy, female-fronted sadcore cross-pollinated with trip-hop electronics. On stage, however, there’s a kinda goth element to their music that’s more normally the preserve of Fall support bands. It is not a lovely sound, and it appears to go on forever, or at least long after American Music Club’s 21:30 scheduled start. Ungallant as it sounds to suggest that the lead singer’s underwear was more interesting than the music she was making, a) she asked the denizens of the front row if they could see up her skirt, and b) a song was halted mid-intro whilst she addressed a blouse button-related wardrobe incident.

American Music Club, though, when they finally appeared, dapper and hatted in their new four-man configuration…wow! Unusually, singer, songwriter, guitarist and all-round centrepiece Mark Eitzel stood off to the right of the stage, leaving new, artfully rumpled Hasselhoffian bassist Sean Hoffman in the more traditional star position. (Oddly enough, Hoffman is the only member of the band shown on the front cover of their new album, “The Golden Age”, as if AMC are repositioning themselves for a teen audience or sump’n.)

Introduced with guitarist Vudi’s acapella rendition of a line from “Chiquitita”, the over-polished production of the recorded Abba tribute band lament “Hello Amsterdam” gets scratched to ribbons by the quartet’s garage rawk aesthetic. But then…ooh…”Blue And Grey Shirt”, that haunting, gentle lament for friends long gone, is spine-shiveringly good; these guys can do sensitive as well, and how!

So far Eitzel’s said almost nothing; he’s all shrugs and apologetic gestures, hiding deep in his suit and beard and porkpie hat like a cross between Stan Laurel and The Hold Steady’s Franz Nicolay. But when he introduces a song from the new album as “originally written by Yes. It’s on “Tales From Topographic Oceans”” his less frequently celebrated raconteur side makes the first of many appearances, boasting mostly all-new banter (bar a shaggy dog anecdote that I recognise, possibly from Sean Body’s excellent Eitzel/AMC biography “Wish The World Away”, and which fails to wend its way towards a resolution even when the band attempt to drown him out).

They play probably half a dozen tunes from the new album, which, since I only bought it on the morning of the gig, I don’t feel ready to comment on yet, except to note that they seem somewhat livelier in performance. The remainder of the mostly magnificent set includes “Home”, “Another Morning” (introduced with the disclaimer “We can’t play “Another Morning” tonight), “Wish The World Away”, “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” (so that’s both their hits covered, then), “Western Sky” twice, once in a band rearrangement and once solo, by popular demand, and “The Revolving Door”.

The evening ended at 20 past curfew (which explained why I was writing up my gig notes at Piccadilly station, waiting for the redeye train back home), but it didn’t matter. Perhaps flawed by their attempt to bring the rawk wherever possible, the backbone of relatively unfamiliar material and an arguably lopsided setlist (three songs from “San Francisco” versus nothing from “Engine”, “United Kingdom” and “Everclear”), AMC’s sweet misery was otherwise fabulous.

AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB The Golden Age (Cooking Vinyl)

Anyone encountering American Music Club for the first time via “The Golden Age” might be forgiven for not recognising a band operating at the cheerier end of their happy/sad continuum, but that, apparently, is where singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Eitzel, his long term guitarist sidekick Vudi and their new rhythm section are at here. It’s still the musical equivalent of a cloudy day, but at least the torrential downpour has temporarily ceased.

Opener “All My Love” sets the scene: Eitzel’s doe-eyed vocals, gently strummed acoustic guitars, a melody more suggested than stated, it’s probably the closest they’ve come to morphing into fellow San Franciscan sadcore specialists Red House Painters. It’s all very nice, but, on the other hand, it’s all very nice; smooth, and slow as molasses.

There are moments when the album at least attempts to break out of its enfeebling cocoon. “The John Berchman Victory Choir” is, initially at least, a bit more raucous and unkempt, a greying echo of the decades-old “Gary’s Song”; the oompah lurch of “I Know That’s Not Really You” is similarly mould-breaking. “Windows On The World” is a wryly amusing plod down the New York tourist trail, celebrating the simple joys of a free beer and a spectacular view of the end of civilisation: as with “On My Way”, it melts into a My Bloody Valentine-esque torrent of feedback and distortion, a rare shattering of the album’s coffee table calm.

Heretical as it sounds, “The Golden Age” is a bland and forgettable American Music Club album, its lovingly upholstered, carefully crafted soft rock sounds failing to engage. Its predecessor, AMC’s first post-reformation album “Love Songs For Patriots”, wasn’t a complete success, but at its best scrutinised emotions pushed out to the edge: real disgust, genuine regret, heartfelt nostalgia. “The Golden Age”, in contrast, just seems timid, never straying too far from its comfortable middle-of-the-road niche.

Mark Eitzel