MARK EITZEL Songs Of Love (Fruit Tree)

Mark Eitzel was the songwriting genius behind the late, lamented American Music Club, a Californian band who fashioned six (or possibly seven, if there's substance to the rumour of an all but unavailable early LP called "The Restless Stranger") albums of beautiful, moving modern urban folk music that eventually earned the media pigeonhole 'sadcore': think Leonard Cohen playing Nirvana and you'd be less wrong than right. They disbanded when AMC's then label Virgin persuaded Eitzel that planet-straddling fame and acclaim would be his if he pursued a solo career. The fact that you don't own any of Mark Eitzel's subsequent three solo recordings (for three different labels) neatly illustrates just how wrong Branson's boys got it, despite his debut "60 Watt Silver Lining" being a melancholic, jazz-tinged masterpiece of its kind.

To the task in hand: "Songs Of Love" is a recording of a solo gig (at The Borderline, 17th January 1991) given by Eitzel whilst still an American Music Club member, just him, his wonderful songs and a few guitars (one of which, the sleeve notes, was loaned by High Llama Sean O'Hagan). It was originally released by Demon a few months after the event, but this vinyl reissue is brought to you (well, realistically, to me) by the Italian label Fruit Tree, and, as the sleeve says, "We call the label "Fruit Tree" as a tribute to the lost genius of Nick Drake". That's almost recommendation enough for me to buy everything they ever release ever on spec, but it's a happy coincidence that this, which I think is their first release, is so very, very good.

You may recall that, in the last ish, Mr Nasty's alter ego had a go at the concept of live albums, suggesting that as modern rock became an increasingly studio bound and created experience the chances of replicating it on the fly became remote, and that any attempt to preserve the excitement of a live performance in front of an appreciative audience would be similarly doomed to failure. Whilst I wouldn't argue that the live album is the cause of some of the grosser travesties of entertainment I've been unfortunate enough to witness (strangely enough, usually by artists who take great pride in their production values) there has to be the occasional exception that proves the rule, and in my opinion "Songs Of Love" is one such example.

On record American Music Club are a blend of mandolins, guitars, bass and percussion, not unlike R.E.M. circa "Out Of Time" and "Automatic For The People" they make a warm and comforting music that cushions the listener from the emotional brutality of Eitzel's lyrics. Here, of course, all you get is voice, guitar, a small club acoustic that you can practically taste, a one-take, warts 'n' all honesty and the whoops and hollers of a small, devotional audience: hear it in the way they repeatedly request favourites between songs and the roar of recognition that greets these fragile, beautiful musics. It's a shame that the onstage banter referred to in the Melody Maker review of the gig reprinted on the back cover has been excised, but you'll still get the feeling that you're in the presence of one of popular music's few true communicators, possibly nowhere more than the raw acapella vocalising of "Room Above The Club". But throughout these thirteen songs, which Eitzel's own sleevenotes seem to categorise as being either about drinking or women, there's an eerie sense of total and utter honesty, peaking on old AMC heart-renders such as "Western Sky", "Blue And Grey Shirt", "Last Harbour", "Kathleen" and "Jenny" much sweet misery, so close to home.

"Songs Of Love" couldn't have been more aptly named: this latest reissue seems like a labour of love for everyone involved, from the artist himself to the Nick Drake-adoring genii behind Fruit Tree Records (I doff my cap, whoever you are) to the too-few lucky listeners. A wonderful, wonderful release, which gives hope to the faithful currently perturbed by Eitzel's presently rather rudderless solo career.

MARK EITZEL 60 Watt Silver Lining (Virgin)

"60 Watt Silver Lining" is the first solo effort by former American Music Club leader Mark Eitzel (apparently, should rumour be believed, after his record company 'politely suggested' he 'lose' the rest of the band - heads should roll if it's true), although former AMC members Bruce Kaphan (piano, pedal steel, bass, organ) and Daniel Pearson (bass, mandolin, drum) make up a goodly proportion of his backing combo here.

Opening track is a languid version of Goffin and King's "No Easy Way Down", a song that carries sufficient gravity of its own accord without requiring Eitzel's world-weary whispering on top as well. (Compare and contrast with Dusty Springfield's version to see just how wrong he gets it). "I thought it was a better song than I could ever write" he deadpans in the sleevenotes; perhaps half a dozen AMC songs could eclipse it, including the wonderful "Johnny Mathis' Feet"; unfortunately what follows only serves to add creedence to his belief: miserable, sleepy-eyed tracks called stuff like "When My Plane Finally Goes Down", "Aspirin", "Some Bartenders Have The Gift Of Pardon" and, bizarrely, "Southend On Sea" (his song publishing company is called I Failed In Life, by the way) that get increasingly bogged down in their own portentousness and buried by the music's cod jazz muso musings. That this album should be released at the same time as the latest from fellow sadcorists them happy-go-lucky Red House Painters sinks the whole affair even further. Let's hope that he either cheers up or reconvenes AMC before his next album, because, ironically, "60 Watt Silver Lining" is the sound of a great talent bumbling around in the dark.

MARK EITZEL West (Warner Bros.)

A hearty Homer Simpson-styled "Doh!" to whoever had the bright idea of teaming Mark Eitzel up with Peter Buck, co-author and co-producer of this, his second solo album. Yes, American Music Club and R.E.M. are two of the finest American bands of the last fifteen years, but the fact The Smiths and New Order were two of the finest English bands of the last fifteen years in no way excuses the sorry blancmange that was the last Electronic album.

Eitzel's first solo album, last year's initially lukewarm but eventually fantastic "60 Watt Silver Lining" was heavily propped up with former members of American Music Club, with whom he fashioned music that seemed like bland AOR until you noticed the lyrical barbs and spikes concealed beneath its smooth surfaces. "West" is not heavily propped up with former members of American Music Club (although members of Pearl Jam and Screaming Trees turn up to bolster that all-important college radio cred rating), and seems like bland AOR, possibly because that's what it is.

"West" contains but two types of tune. There's the jolly/not jolly medium-paced bouncy rock(ish) types (think of your least favourite track on "New Adventures In Hi-Fi" with less impenetrable lyrics) which are blatantly designed to be spectacularly unsuccessful singles ("Free Of Harm", "In Your Life") and the slow, acoustic types (the admittedly quite good "Helium", pretty much the rest of the album). The lyrical emotional pinpricking that made "60 Watt Silver Lining", and almost everything by American Music Club, such compelling listening, is completely absent - either that or its been redirected by the dead-on-arrival accompanying music.

I wouldn't recommend an album like "West" if it were created by some unknown American singer songwriter, so the fact that it's by an artist with Eitzel's heartstring-tugging talent is inexcusable. The sound of record companies trying to make a quick killing hangs heavy over this release, being Eitzel's first album for Warners - he has his picture on the front cover, which is plastered with a sticker referring to Peter Buck and which, even on the day of release, reads "The critically acclaimed album" (anyone else remember the old Punch cartoon with two movie moguls at a party, one saying "I'm writing a prize-winning script about corruption in the movie industry"? Oh, just me then). However, the slightly better news is that apparently a Peter Buck-less third album is due to follow very shortly, promising something more akin to the 'real' Mark Eitzel. Until then, hoard away all the AMC albums you can find, lest history rewrite the great man's musical representation on the basis of spark-free slop like this.

MARK EITZEL Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby (Matador)

Never one to take the easy way out (just look at that title, for a kick-off!), Mark Eitzel, former proprietor of the legendary sadcore outfit American Music Club, split up that band on the advice of his (then) record company to make a downbeat, jazz-tinged gem entitled "60 Watt Silver Lining" that got just as ignored as the seven AMC albums that preceded it. There followed an ill-advised hook-up with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck that veered dangerously close to AOR territory, and now comes (...deep breath...) "Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby", his third solo album in as many years for as many labels, and the first to be released on vinyl (as a luxurious 150 gram audiophile pressing, in fact, for those who care about such things).

"Caught In A Trap..." was recorded during November 1996, predominately just Eitzel and an acoustic guitar, but with assistance on a handful of tracks from such luminaries of the leftfield as Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Kid Congo Powers from The Cramps. In common with much of this issue's offerings it's Not Exactly A Barrel Of Laughs, in fact the most light-hearted piece is the opening track, called "Are You The Trash". Many of the eleven songs tend towards the droll, dry and depressing ("Auctioneer's Song", "If I Had A Gun") and on the rare occasions when Eitzel 'rocks out' (relatively speaking), such as "Queen Of No One" and "Cold Light Of Day", the results are disappointingly generic and one-dimensional.

Following tepidly on the heels of "West", that dismal Peter Buck collaboration, this album suggests that Eitzel is stuck in a creative rut at the moment: he can't do the big, upbeat, frothy stuff ("West" being more than adequate evidence of his failings as a pop singer) and even his stock-in-trade barfly reportage is sounding worn and over-familiar compared with classic AMC albums such as "California" and "United Kingdoms". If you know nothing of Mark Eitzel's genius, buy those, don't worry about this just yet.

SEAN BODY Wish The World Away - Mark Eitzel And The American Music Club (SAF)

Like many of the most compelling rock biographies - or at least the ones that illuminate the kind of tales that haven't become the stuff of tabloid folklore - Sean Body's scholarly treatise on the history of one of America's greatest lost songwriters is tragic stuff, a tale littered with misunderstanding, mismanagement, tumultuous critical acclaim and horrendous commercial apathy. From The Velvet Underground and Big Star to the perennial battling of the mighty Shack, the story is the same, only the names and faces have been changed to protect the innocent. You wouldn't spend precious time reading a biography of Mark Eitzel unless your life had already been touched in some way by ten or so albums he's fashioned either solo or under the auspices of American Music Club, but if yours has the retelling of what makes his music so frequently brutally beautiful and occasionally exasperating is in safe hands here. Six pages of references and sources attest to the loving care that has gone into this book, archive photographs and lengthy discussion of rare and unreleased works distance it as far as is possible from standard-issue cut-and-paste rock book hagiography. As guitarist Vudi notes in the introduction, "You'll have a good time with this story. Everyone you will talk to is an egomaniac - with a totally distorted version of events - and an alcoholic with no powers of recall." That Body has fashioned anything coherent from such psychological wreckage is a minor miracle, especially when the result is as compelling as this. And if "Wish The World Away" has you digging out your old AMC albums and falling under their damaged spell one more time, as it did me, it has served its purpose.

MARK EITZEL The Invisible Man (Matador)

Since disbanding American Music Club - a band whose every recorded utterance prefigured R.E.M.'s "Automatic For The People" in all aspects save for the planet-hugging success - allegedly at the behest of his then record company, Mark Eitzel's solo career has travelled an idiosyncratic path. First there was the chamber jazz of "60 Watt Silver Lining", an initially baffling album that has grown into one of those I would find life difficult without. Then came the ill-advised Peter Buck collaboration "West", which succeeded in smothering almost all of the main protagonists' many talents. "Caught In A Trap And I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby" was equally baffling, mostly Eitzel alone save for occasional appearances by members of Sonic Youth and The Cramps. But for the last three years, nada, save the occasional live appearance - I saw him supporting The Divine Comedy early in 1999, when some of the songs that have finally found a home on "The Invisible Man" were aired during a set entirely uncontaminated by familiar material.

So, approach with trepidation, the point being that "The Invisible Man" could, literally, be almost anywhere. Eitzel's face has been blacked out by shadow on the cover photograph, and a legend on the disc label reads "This CD contains music by the invisible man", which are both about as anti-ego as it gets. Apparently created largely by Eitzel sitting at home with an Imac, surprisingly "The Invisible Man" might be the best thing he's done since American Music Club split. There's a silver lining of coruscating wit to the thick clouds of introspection that's been absent from his writing for far too long: "Christian Science Reading Room" details a drugged-up conversion outside the titular structure, and "Proclaim Your Joy" (as its author notes, "I wrote this in 5 seconds as a kind of joke but then I thought: ha ha") is an absurdly funny country hoe-down that should have been a gigantic hit when released as a single.

"The Boy With The Hammer" crackles with the kind of high tension rarely heard in Eitzel's music post-AMC, and the coda to "Sleep" drifts mellifluously, possibly the most delicate few minutes of music he's yet written.

All of which is enough to make "The Invisible Man" a good album, at the very least. But to understand what makes it great, a little diversion is required. In the late 90s - Eitzel's biographer Sean Body is not specific about the date - Kathleen Burns, at one time Eitzel's lover, closest friend and muse, died of an overdose. If you felt inclined you could map the tracery of the 'Kathleen songs' through Eitzel's back catalogue: invariably, in doing so, you'd traverse some of the most honest and painful music man has yet written about woman. Following her death, in January 1999, someone asked what Eitzel wanted to do with the rest of the year. He replied, "To be with Kathleen". There are, as far as I can detect, two 'Kathleen songs' on "The Invisible Man", sandwiched together just aft of the middle of the album. Of "Anything" Eitzel writes "There are no credits for this song". It hardly needs any: a slow hymn to the destruction that addiction brings, blessed with the bittersweet chorus "Your mother always worried you'd be a sad old maid/Alone and sour as a glass of lemonade/But you're not alone/You should know that by now/I'd give anything to be where you are". It's a crushing emotional piledriver, only matched by what immediately follows. "Without You" is Eitzel's ultimate not-waving-but-drowning anthem for the lost souls left behind, and it's hard not to feel for the man as he moans "I sink more than I fly/I drink more than I cry/I blink far away in the sky/Without you". For me these two songs make just about every attempt at melancholy in popular song look like chocolate box sentiment. Of course, there's an ideological viper's nest just waiting to be stirred here by the suggestion that you can't gain a complete appreciation of an artist's works without first studying his or her life, and I can't be sure the power of these songs wouldn't be diminished without prior knowledge of what I dare to assume constitutes their background, but knowing what I've read makes them some of the most nakedly honest music I can fathom.

Another quote from Body's fine biography, "Wish The World Away", published in 1999: "…the new songs sound as dynamic as anything Eitzel has written. After a number of different cul-de-sacs, Eitzel was back doing what he is so good at: writing wonderful songs and performing them with a band. It appears like Eitzel's next album will be the one that his fans have been waiting for since American Music Club disbanded". Happy prescience be blessed, here it is, and it's wonderful.

MARK EITZEL Music For Courage & Confidence (New West)

The latest rest stop on Mark Eitzel's crabwalking career path is possibly one of his most curious releases yet. The sticker on the front of "Music For Courage & Confidence" reads "Mark Eitzel sings the sentimental hits of the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s & 80s", making this album some kind of conceptual cousin to George Michael's somewhat underwhelming "Songs From The Last Century". Dig into the booklet notes and things get stranger still, with the music and Eitzel's breathy, hangdog vocals apparently recorded three years apart, and the credit "This album was instigated by executive producer Johan Kugelberg who labored long and hard over song selection, assembled musicians, and generally made all of this happen". By this point you might be wondering how much, if any, of Eitzel's own heart and soul was invested in this project.

Despite these troubling forebodings "Music For Courage & Confidence" is no disaster area, although equally it doesn't attain the high standards of at least some of Eitzel's solo work and most of that of his previous band, American Music Club. The tunes selected are mostly pop, country and soul standards that contain barely a grain of the intensity found in much of Eitzel's own songwriting, although the relaxed but frosty AOR backing music is rather more akin to the man's solo work, the astonishing "The Invisible Man" album in particular. In fact his version of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" (see what I mean by curious?) is unrecognisable to the extent that it could have slipped seamlessly onto the aforementioned. The lounge band patter that closes "Help Me Make It Through The Night" is playfully reminiscent of The Mothers Of Invention's savage "America Drinks And Goes Home", whilst "I Only Have Eyes For You" offers the unlikely spectacle of Art Garfunkel going post-rock. Eitzel's interpretation of the Andrea True Connection's "More, More, More" serves to highlight how much Saint Etienne's "Hug My Soul" borrowed from that song, if nothing else.

Amidst all this are one, maybe two, moments of revelation. Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" is the definite, a near-brilliant, lightly jazzy, funky version, one of the most animated arrangements Eitzel has ever stood up in front of, and he responds by rendering the title phrase in a pleading near-growl. Phil Ochs' "Rehearsals For Retirement" is the maybe, of all these songs coming closest to the kind of world-weary resignation that is Eitzel's own stock in trade.

So, "Music For Courage & Confidence" is ultimately pleasant, Eitzel's dinner party album, I suppose. It misses the bleary savagery of his own writing, and these songs miss the swooning romanticism that more conventionally trained singers might bring to them. It's not a marriage made in heaven, but it passes some time amiably enough.

American Music Club

The Divine Comedy/Mark Eitzel Newport V3, 15 January 1999