American Music Club made some of the best but most overlooked music around and Sun 13’s Banjo wonders why.
The point of our Lost Albums features, if there is one, is ostensibly to shine a light on some records that we feel have been criminally ignored.
If we’re being honest with ourselves here, it is also a chance for us, as music fans, to vocalise our frustrations, to turn to the ether and scream “Why!”
Why is it that these albums are so overlooked when the music they contain is some of the best that has ever been made?
We know there are a variety of reasons (luck, payola and the vagaries of fashion to name but three), but there is little more frustrating than listening to an album that you absolutely know is one of the most incredible things you have ever heard and know that it will never be discussed in hushed tones in the pub (remember pubs?), never feature in the Best Album of the Decade features that regularly appear in music mags and will languish in your record collection, lost but loved.
And few bands have this fate applied to them more thoroughly than American Music Club.
Singing songs of love, heartbreak and alcohol, American Music Club mixed rock, folk, country and punk and created a rich seam of Americana that has withstood the passing of time to sound as good and as vital as the day it was created.
In truth, we could have chosen any of their albums for a Lost Albums feature, such is the quality and the near obscurity of their recorded works, but Everclear is the one that should have brought this all to an end.
Everclear is the record that was meant to take them overground, to REM style levels of acclaim and adoration.
That it didn’t is testament to the fact that the cream does not always rise to the top and that, despite all the essential elements being present and correct, quality is no guarantee of success.
I have felt personally disappointed over these Lost Albums things before, but this is the one that actually upsets me. American Music Club should have been one of the 90’s biggest bands, but instead, mention of their name is greeted by blank stares and shrugged shoulders from those who should really know better.
Everclear is an album that deserves to be found.
My first exposure to American Music Club came when they played Reading Festival’s second stage back in 1991. A friend had heard them compared favourably to Swans, who were going through their acoustic phase at the time.
On returning from the festival, we checked out their California and United Kingdom albums and fell in love with singer Mark Eitzel’s voice and his candid lyrics. This was the start of a long journey to the heart of both Eitzel and American Music Club.
The band had built up a small but dedicated fanbase and their albums so far had received positive, if unspectacular press, but Everclear was a step up in terms of production and the potential for mass appeal.
Everclear hit a wall of inexplicable commercial indifference, but the critical reception was such that Rolling Stone magazine put it in their top 5 albums of the year and put Eitzel on the front cover, hailing him as Songwriter of the Year.
Later, The Guardian was to describe him as “America’s greatest living lyricist”.
Following this burst of publicity, American Music Club signed to Virgin Records for their follow up and a good deal of money was spent on their promotion.
So all the ingredients for success were there – wonderful, critically acclaimed music, a cult fanbase and major label support. It seems unbelievable that all this could have led to an attempt at success that was almost heroic in its failure.
Eitzel himself described American Music Club as a band “destined to fall through the cracks”, but given his self-deprecating nature this is not too surprising.
This deprecatory streak has been with him a long time, causing him to question the value of his work on a seemingly constant basis. His early demo tapes were given the titles Mark Eitzel’s 4 Track Tape of Shame and Mean Mark Eitzel Gets Fat while his two favourite solo albums are The Invisible Man and The Ugly American.
By the time they recorded Everclear, they should have been on an upward arc that would lead to great things.
The album starts off with the sublime Why Won’t You Stay, a short opener, clocking in at just under three minutes that manages to cram more emotion and pathos into is brief life than many bands do across whole albums.
Why Won’t You Stay seemingly finds Eitzel looking on the form of a sleeping lover, unable to sleep himself and pondering “Why do you do this to me, showing me all that I’m good for is to watch you sleep”
Eitzel’s insomniac imagination makes him suppose that the sleeping girl is, in fact, dead, wondering “seems like nothing’s too good for this life, but some things are too good for this world.”
Eitzel came out as gay in 1985, but his muse remained the woman he had lived with for over 8 years, Kathleen Burns. He later turned down offers to become any kind of a gay spokesman as, he reasoned, he was still writing love songs to a woman and was therefore not the kind of person they were looking for.
All this adds to the song’s despair as, all these years later, Eitzel was still able to recall moments from their relationship that gave him cause for concern, right down to how he felt watching his lover sleep.
The music is a slow and slight waltz and American Music Club back Eitzel’s tales up perfectly. Their playing is restrained and sensitive throughout, combining country, folk and the alternative rock that was taking America by storm at the time.
As album openers go, Why Won’t You Stay sets the scene perfectly, as American Music Club lay out their emotional stall.
Second track Rise is a change of pace altogether. An uplifting song that finds Eitzel in a rare optimistic mood, telling us “Everything can rise.” The song is a sweeping roar, with guitarist Vudi showcasing his trademark blend of delicate picking and abstract noise perfectly.
Vudi was integral to the sound of Everclear, his approach to his instrument adding an experimental edge and creating huge washes of sound or delicate arpeggios to the sound. Without Vudi, Everclear would be a much different, poorer album.
Bruce Kaplan‘s pedal steel guitar also gave the band an extra dimension and an added depth. It’s a skillful player of the pedal steel that can add texture to a song and not make it sound like a country cliche,
Meanwhile, bassist Dan Pearson is the only player I have ever seen with a three string bass.
Clearly American Music Club were far from being a conventional band.
Rise was written as Eitzel’s friends were succumbing to AIDS and he reasoned that with this going on in their lives, the last thing his friends wanted to hear was another maudlin song about his ex-girlfriend, so he tasked himself to write something positive.
Miracle on 8th Street looks at Eitzel’s issues with drink, his barfly tendencies that have occupied a large part of his life. He is an observer, looking at himself and noting “I know you’re strong enough to live in a world where all the magic’s gone. I watch your hands tremble, you reach for another sip. Now all your luck is gone.”
Ex Girlfriend is an album highlight and one of American Music Club’s best songs. In it, Eitzel is trying to comfort someone over the end of a relationship, saying “Your ex-girlfriend told me you spent all yesterday crying. Hey, I didn’t know things were going so bad for you. Maybe you’re just trying to get her to come back to you or work your way out of the cynical attitudes that protect you.”
Again, Vudi lifts the song and the band offer empathetic playing to carry the sad tale.
The album’s overriding themes are of despair at the creator’s life and situation. This feeling was never to really leave Eitzel and permeates his work.
Sick of Food is another highlight that sees its writer tired of what life has to offer but still desperate to live it. “I was sick of love, and so I just stopped feeling, but I couldn’t find anything to take its place”
Drink again rears its ugly head; “I’m sick of drink, so why am I so thirsty?” Before asking “I just called to ask you what I did last night.”
The Dead Part of You looks at the cost of committing to being part of a couple in a relationship, as Eitzel batters away at his acoustic guitar and sings “he has taken everything and there’s so little of you left”
Part of Eitzel’s skill is to document the dark corners of emotion and return with lyrics that we can relate to, that we can apply to our lives. His lyrics are heartfelt and meant and come from a place of sincerity, albeit with a mean eye that is often turned inwards.
What the Pillar of Salt Held Up shows Eitzel’s propensity for long and ungainly song titles that reached its peak with What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life on their 6th album, Mercury.
What the Pillar of Salt Held Up is a song of fragile beauty with serenely picked acoustic guitar and a superb vocal.
Final track Jesus’ Hands is a fitting way to end an album like Everclear; a drinking song where Eitzel tells his audience “Well I’d like to hang out but I can tell that you’re not a drinking crowd. I got places to go, people to see, I got a thirst that would make the ocean proud” before telling us that he sees himself slipping through Jesus’ hands, but the lure of the bottle is too strong to resist.
And with that, Everclear comes to the end of its journey, a journey that has taken us from hopeful highs to crushing lows, taking in broken relationships, alcoholic hazes and a genetic disposition to see the darker side of life.
It is perhaps this that denied American Music Club their rightful place at the top table. Theirs is a vision that rarely sees the sunshine, instead choosing to focus on the shadows.
This is not a forced position, something that was done to aim for an audience, but rather a reflection of the outlook and mindset of Mark Eitzel, something that ran through their songs and their albums.
Their major label follow up, Mercury, is another incredible record that was promoted with tours, an extravagant advertising campaign complete with the likes of double pack CD singles courtesy of Virgin records, but it was to come to nothing.
Its first song contained a line that seemed to sum up Eitzel when he described himself as being “drunk on the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink.”
American Music Club split up in 1995, with Eitzel releasing a string of excellent but similarly under performing albums.
In 2001 he had new songs ready to go but couldn’t afford to record them. It wasn’t until a friend won the lottery and wanted to finance the recording session that he was able to go back into the studio to record the beautiful Don’t Be A Stranger. That this album had to rely on the kind of odds involved in a lottery win to even exist is nothing short of ridiculous.
An American Music Club reunion followed in 2003, touring and adding another couple of albums before disbanding for good in 2010.
These days Eitzel is still touring, but playing small venues and failing to make a living from music. In 2019 he announced a ‘Living Room tour’, where he posted on Facebook asking for people to volunteer a room in their house so he could play a gig to a maximum of 60 people.
In a recent interview, Eitzel admitted that “Of course I secretly hanker for Bruce Springsteen’s level of success, are you kidding? If I could actually play a show and have people not talk through the show and not have to deal with smelling the toilet from the stage. But I don’t know how I’ll achieve it, now that I’m old and over.”
There is an almost casual disregard for American Music Club these days. Their Facebook page is completely empty and their website is little more than Wikipedia links.
Hopefully, there is an alternative world where Mark Eitzel and American Music Club’s talent and their superb canon of songs were recognised for the treasures they are, where they headlined Glastonbury and played the world’s biggest stage. A world where Mark Eitzel doesn’t have to concern himself with the smell of the toilets on stage or playing in people’s living rooms.
Unfortunately, that world is not this one. But at least in this world we still have the music of Mark Eitzel and American Music Club. And for now, at least, that will have to do.