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Return of the restless strangers
on 15 September 2004
In the early 1990s, at the peak of their powers, American Music Club were one of the most critically revered groups. Most (in)famous is Andrew Smith's Melody Maker review reproduced on the back of the solo live "Songs of Love". Smith's remarks (that Mark Eitzel had more soul in his little finger than the entire Motown back catalogue and that, if he had to make a choice between the next AMC album, and the entire history of recorded music he would choose the former) were overblown but you knew where he was coming from.
In 1993's "Mercury", for many, including me, the group's pinnacle, Eitzel's voice, lyrics and songwriting were matched by an enticing variety of instruments and effects, masterminded by producer Mitchell Froom and iconoclastic guitarist Vudi. If such experimentation in textures and sound was not quite on the level of Talk Talk's late masterpieces, it was reminiscent of Radiohead at times and elevated AMC above the rank and file of alt-country.
And yet, and yet...While a 90 minute collection of AMC's finest moments would be as good a listening experience as any, I always thought the band never fulfilled their promise. "Everclear" had at least 5 bona fide classics but was marred by a couple of songs "Rise" and "Crabwalk" which seemed overblown or contrived and marred the feel and sequence of the album. 2 albums later, when the group was poised for overdue commercial success, they released their least successful album, at least until that time, in "San Francisco" which was at least 4 songs too long and, for all the gorgeousness of a number of the tracks, smacked of an expectant record label breathing down the band's necks or self-expectation getting the better of them.
If Eitzel were once rightly regarded as the greatest American songwriter, by 1994 his crown was lost to Will Oldham of Palace fame. By the time of his solo career, Eitzel's great voice seemed to have been shot to pieces by a loss of confidence or exhaustion or some other inexplicable factor.
Perhaps because of the sense of a job unfinished, the group's decision to reform has been waited by many with bated breath. With the wait over, ten years on, how do they sound now? Well, they still sound like AMC. There are enough positives to make this a very welcome return. But, but...The album is at least 20 minutes too long and, ultimately an album of great moments rather than a great album.
The opener "Ladies and Gentlemen" starts off inauspiciously with Eitzel's strained voice proclaiming "Lay-deez and gen-nel-meh-en, its time/for all the good in you to shine". However as the instruments come in one by one with feedback, piano and drums to the fore, the songs climaxes to a solid start.
If there is nothing to match "The Nightwatchman", "Kathleen", "Western Sky", "Sick of Food" or "Apology for an Accident", third track The Patriot" is the thematic centerpiece and a devastatingly unflinching attack on contemporary America. "Only Love Can Set You Free" features Eitzel's voice in turns at is most intimate and most plaintive and melodic and, unlike elsewhere, the dense instrumentation and production enhances the song's intensity.
The concluding "The Devil Needs You" has more than a passing similarity to "Will You Find Me" which closed "Mercury". The rich deep timbre of Eitzel's voice shapes the lyrics wonderfully but makes one all the more critical of the songs like "Home" with which I could have done without - a rather tuneless number with nothing to grab the listener. Crushingly, Eitzel's voice has that croaky affect which latterly came to dominate his work. "Myopic Books" is centred around a repetitive vocal line which has little to commend it despite name checking Dinosaur Jr and Saul Bellow. "The Horseshoe Wreath In Bloom" outdoes "Ladies in Gentlemen" in off-putting opening line: "Now here's the story of the incredible shrinking man" but develops into a fine enough song.
Despite these criticisms, long term fans and the inquisitive unwashed should both purchase this album and go to almost any lengths to see them live. Welcome back.