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We all know how swiftly and confidently time flies. Yet within the big picture, there are an infinite number of slower scenes capable of yielding riches if given the wise, insightful, detailed treatment they deserve. Such is the hunting ground of singer-songwriter-guitarist Mark Eitzel and his band, American Music Club. AMC's lead guitarist, known simply as Vudi, understates Eitzel's skill considerably when he says, "His writing is pretty good. [We] give it a nice ambience, which is about all it needs."
Indeed, Eitzel's work might bear a strong resemblance to the recordings of Harry Connick if Junior were to find himself strung out on the opiate of love during an extended period of awful luck. Both vocalists croon, but Eitzel broods over his experiences with a candor and spleen Connick would probably find threatening. As a result, Eitzel shares more in common with Yo La Tengo's thoughtful Ira Kaplan and natural wonder Jonathan Richman than Connick ever will. The success of Eitzel's intimate folk-rock songs can be found in their navigation of the tenuous margin between sentiment and sentimentality. He may be a stranger to some listeners when the music starts, but he's a confidant by the time it's over.
AMC's Mercury, released last year by Warner Bros., acutely details Eitzel's miseries. He opens one track by lamenting, "There's so little love left in my heart/For anyone, for anyone." By contrast, "Fearless"--the first cut on the Club's most recent Warner Bros. release, San Francisco--serves notice about an ongoing romance via highly emotional themes and Eitzel's appropriately heartfelt delivery of lines such as "My tears, they're the only thing that's gonna endure/Unless I love you even more."
Although Eitzel's words and music are strong enough to stand on their own--"He could pull it off with just an acoustic guitar," Vudi reiterates--concentrating solely on the lead singer can obscure the fine band that backs him up. Vudi, Eitzel and bassist Danny Pearson have been together since 1983 (drummer Tim Mooney joined in the early Nineties), and their familiarity strengthens the act's sound.
"We're all old friends," Vudi explains. "We've been together a long time, so we understand where he's coming from. We're sensitive to the songs. It's pretty organic. We try not to get in the way of what the song is doing."
Eitzel, Vudi notes, provides the material with its backbone. "He works on [the songs] hard at home, and then brings them to us with an acoustic guitar. He plays, we figure out our parts and presto! Sometimes he's just sitting with a guitar and the song will just appear. Other times he'll have a notebook full of lyrics that he'll dip into and then add his little guitar thing. It'll just come together."
Asked whether the band's arrangement can be seen as the composition's frame, Vudi suggests, "Maybe the song itself is the frame and the band is the picture. You can look at it either way, depending on the tune. For some of them, the band is definitely the picture and the song is the frame."
The latter is exemplified by San Francisco's "It's Your Birthday." The song's rock-oriented style has proved appealing to FM radio programmers, many of whom first became aware of AMC last year when the band appeared on a series of live dates with Pearl Jam. The opportunity to play on such a high-profile tour evolved quite naturally; Eitzel and his bandmates had been friendly with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament for some time. "They liked our music, so they asked us to do the California dates. They're all really nice people," Vudi notes.
Understandably, Vudi says that leaping from the intimacy of club venues to arenas filled with thousands of screaming teens required some adjustment: "It was weird playing for their audience. I didn't really realize they were such a big band until we were out there. Then it was like, `Christ, this is like the Beatles or something.' These kids were having a really traumatic experience...out in the audience coming unglued."
At its most effective, American Music Club can unnerve the steeliest pop-music fan in a manner not completely unrelated to grunge. Eitzel's lyrics are extrapolations from his experience, which he honestly articulates at what seems like great personal risk. However, Vudi declines to assign a larger risk to Eitzel's confessions than he does to those of many other tunesmiths.
"I don't know how much risk Little Richard felt when he did `Tutti- Frutti,"' he says. "It's an almost embarrassingly honest song--`Wop-bop-a-lu-bop.' Anybody who gets up and sings something is putting something on the line. Anybody. They're all love songs as far as I can tell."
No doubt Eitzel would agree--but it remains difficult to think of another writer who's so willing to have his own work challenged. A case in point is "Johnny Mathis' Feet," a track from Mercury that was written after an acquaintance told Eitzel that she'd take any Mathis cut over his entire catalogue. During the number, an imaginary Mathis combs through Eitzel's songs and finds them lacking: "Never in my life have I ever seen such a mess/Why do you say everything as if you were a thief?/Like what you stole has no value/And what you preach is far from belief."