American Healing

After a decade apart, the members of American Music Club are together again, tighter than ever

The end of a relationship is by definition--most of the time, at least--divisive. Break-ups, however, also can inflict considerable collateral damage on various unexpected areas of human existence. The music collection, for instance. In the aftermath of my divorce 11 years ago, lots of CDs stayed behind with my first wife, including entire oeuvres of such artists as Pretenders, Paul Simon, the Waterboys, XTC.

Among those I insisted accompany me out the door were recordings by American Music Club. I knew that singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel's gruff and ragged poetry of bitterness and hope would prove a sufficient salve during an impending lifetime pity party.

A year after I carted my American Music Club CDs to my sad little bachelor's apartment, the band broke up, following its album San Francisco, a loss for fans of challenging music that finds spiritual redemption in eloquent decay and raw emotions.

Eitzel, he of the scruffy beard and ever-present rumpled fedora, went on to record a series of admirable and critically acclaimed solo albums. But his material on its own seemed to me too subtle and writerly, somewhat more conventional than his work with AMC.

I yearned for years to hear again the jolting sound of American Music Club, that sound that, on mid-1980s albums such as The Restless Stranger and Engine, took several listens to get used to. It was an acquired, acidic taste--heartfelt Americana twang with flurries of dissonant guitar in a lurching cabaret setting capable of recalling the artful theatrical rock of Nick Cave and Tom Waits.

This year, the wait was over. A decade after the group's last recording, American Music Club reformed for a few one-off dates, recorded the triumphant album Love Songs for Patriots and embarked on an honest-to-goodness concert tour; a European jaunt just ended, and the American leg brings the band to Tucson this weekend.

Apparently, the American Music Club split of 1994 was less acrimonious than many divorces. Eitzel told Rolling Stone last year that the band endured a "pretty friendly breakup." All it took for the band to reunite was a couple of a calls, a few drinks and some casual (no promises) recording sessions in drummer Tim Mooney's studio in San Francisco.

Perhaps precipitating the AMC reunion, Eitzel's most recent solo album, 2003's The Ugly American, was a collection of previously released American Music Club songs, recorded with a Greek folk group as backing band.

Although their loose narratives are notoriously addictive, many of Eitzel's songs are memorable for containing at least one searing epigram that seems to cut surgically to its emotional core.

Despite the pure beauty of the arrangement and Eitzel's disingenuous self-criticism on the band's almost-hit "Johnny Mathis' Feet," I remember better the bon mots. On "I've Been a Mess," he intones, "Lazarus wasn't grateful for his second wind / For another chance to watch his chances fade like the dawn and leave."

Or this one from "Hollywood 4-5-92": "My revenge against the world is to believe everything you say / Balance as you are upon a pile of empty bottles." Then there's the deceptively simple "I've been praying a lot lately / It's because I no longer have a TV," from the breakup tune "Apology for an Accident."

The new album is not an exception, although Eitzel's spirit seems brighter, somehow reborn. This first words on the album, accompanied by guitarist Vudi's distorted chords, are "Ladies and gentlemen, it's time / For all the good that's in you to shine." That doesn't mean he's above relating a sardonic tale, such as that of "Patriot's Heart," which examines the tawdry scene in a gay strip club."

The best thing about Love Songs for Patriots, and American Music Club in general, is the tension that occurs when the band shimmers and rumbles while Eitzel wrestles his free-verse lyrics and occasional off rhymes into the melodies. It's the sound of musicians abandoning their own slacker excuses for not making brilliant art and drunk on the act of creation.

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