When I was in college about ten years ago, American Music Club was pretty much my favorite band in the world. Not long after the release of their 1994 album San Francisco, though, the band broke up. In the ensuing years, I’d come to enjoy songwriter/lead singer Mark Eitzel’s solo career, but some of his albums were better than others. (The Chet Baker-esque 60 Watt Silver Lining: bravo; the Peter Buck-produced West: a real disappointment.) Eitzel is as poetic and heart-rending a songwriter as I’ve ever come across. And he was ideally accompanied by AMC’s blend of gritty and velvety sound textures, courtesy of Vudi’s guitar, Bruce Kaplan’s pedal steel, Tim Mooney’s drums, and Dan Pearson’s bass. American Music Club (their name was inspired by three words they believed never should be part of a band’s moniker) really created a sound that was greater than the sum of its parts. I guess you today you’d call it alt-country, but AMC transcended definition.
When I heard the band had re-assembled this year, it felt too late. I’d moved on. Not only were Eitzel and company ten years older—never a good sign for a rock band—but the melancholy lyrics also weren’t something I identified with quite so strongly as I had in my twenties. Still, when I heard yesterday morning that AMC was playing here in Portland later that night, I didn’t hesitate to head for Berbati’s to check them out. And it’s a good thing, because AMC played a great show.
The band began with three old favorites: "Johnny Mathis's Shoes" from the album Mercury, an absolute masterpiece produced by the great Mitchell Froom; "Why Won't You Stay" from Everclear, the 1991 album that, after much critical praise, put the band on the map; and "If I Had a Hammer", also from Mercury. Later they played "Western Sky" from the venerable early album California to conclude the first of two encores. Standing there blissfully in a rock club for the first time in seemingly years, I was taken back to the days when I used to memorize Eitzel’s lyrics.
One of my favorite passages from Mercury, for example, goes: “Well I’ve been praying a lot lately/It’s because I no longer have a TV/Just a fluorescent hangover to light the way/Between the things you say and the things I see.” On the AIDS benefit compilation album No Alternative, Eitzel begins the song “All Your Jeans Were Too Tight” by singing simply and with his unmistakable wit, “Everything I say/Sounds clumsy and dumb/But tryin’ to make you feel better/Is like tryin’ to trick St. Peter”. I could go on and on.
By now American Music Club may never fully rekindle the sublime sounds created together in the early 1990s. And Eitzel in particular has had a rough time over the years, with alcoholism, romantic heartache, and the irony of being called a genius but being more marginalized each year. But I hope he and the rest of the band will always take pride in having produced something exceptionally satisfying and gorgeous and haunting and gripping. They don’t have to trick St. Peter to make me feel good.