Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

American Music Club - California

American Music Club
California


Released 1988 on Frontier Records
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 04/03/2007ce


Side 1:
1. FIREFLY
2. SOMEWHERE
3. LAUGHING STOCK
4. LONELY
5. PALE SKINNY GIRL
6. BLUE AND GREY SHIRT
Side 2:
1. BAD LIQUOR
2. NOW THAT YOU'RE DEFEATED
3. JENNY
4. WESTERN SKY
5. HIGHWAY 5
6. LAST HARBOR

AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB:
MARK EITZEL - VOCALS
TOM MALLON - DRUMS
DAN PEARSON - BASS
VUDI - GUITAR
with
BRUCE KAPHAN - PEDAL STEEL
LISA DAVIS - BASS ON FIREFLY

PRODUCED AND RECORDED BY TOM MALLON

I can't believe that I still only own this album on an old tape from the eighties, but in the absence of any reissue programme for AMC, it's all I can listen to. The first five American Music Club albums are long overdue a reissue, ideally with some remastering, sleevenotes/lyrics and any stray b-sides etc - it would be great if they got their back catalogue reissued in the thoughtful style of the recent Triffids programme on Domino. The first two albums 'The Restless Stranger' (1985) and 'Engine' (1987) can be found in cities on over-priced import, but you know the minute that you bought them, a nice UK reissue would occur (this happened to me when I bought Gene Clark's 'No Other' a few years ago!). The debut underlines their British UK influences, probably disowned by Eitzel now, but he has cited acts such as the Bunnymen, Killing Joke, The Slits and The Teardrop Explodes on it. 'Engine' a year or so later found them refining their sound (...remember when it took a few albums for a band to find their way?...) and produced classics like 'Gary's Song' and 'Nightwatchman.' It was their third album 'California' that would be their first classic album, one to rank alongside the more celebrated fifth album 'Everclear' (1991), which lead to the misguided idea they would break through, Rolling Stone making Eitzel songwriter of the year, and two albums on Virgin ('Mercury', 'San Francisco') that were good, sometimes great...and are usually the two AMC albums most easily found.

Until a pending reissue appears 'California' can be found on the usual formats - though I haven't seen a CD yet - there was a cd on Demon Records that featured 'California' and its lesser relative 'United Kingdom'(1) , but that is also now hard to find. Several songs here can be located on another Demon-release, 'Songs of Love' by Mark Eitzel (2). Some great versions of songs here and the hard to find 'Take Courage', but they don't possess the great production here or Vudi's wilder guitars. Kind of tragic that BBC6 is about to celebrate 'The Joshua Tree' when a much more interesting album that touches on similar climes langours in deletion - Vudi's guitarwork blows The Edge away, though it does sound not far from the Lanois-sound on Emmylou Harris' 'Wrecking Ball' (1994), especially on 'Highway 5' and 'Laughingstock.' It is possible to buy an AMC-compilation through their own website that contains some of their key songs as well as some rarities. They would be served better by a two disc compilation in the style of Gene Clark's 'Flying High' and touching on their return a few years ago (as well as reissues of the albums proper).

AMC were all about melancholy, notably in the lyrics of Eitzel which were probably the missing link between Cohen and Morrissey - the black comedy apparent to both those two apply here. 'California' as the title suggests is a late entry to the 'California'-canon, sadly one overlooked in both books on California (the more restricted 'Hotel California' & the more expansive 'Waiting for the Sun'). It's a darker relative of those fucked-up albums made in that state, though I am stressing it's lyrically more 'Greetings from LA' or 'On the Beach' than 'Hotel California'!! Journalists often invoke the sad short-story world of Raymond Carver in relation to Eitzel's lyrics, which probably hold true here - as do comparisons to the great Denis Johnson, 'California' the ideal soundtrack to his Californian-gothic 'Already Dead' (crying out to be adapted by David Lynch). AMC have been cited in relation to the so-called alt-country movement, possibly due to Bruce Kaphan's pedal steel - probably a bad association for them (as are the similar vocal inflections and attempts at Eitzel-style lyrics by the exceedingly irritating Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. I had the misfortune of seeing the other week. I haven't seen the future of rock'n'roll...). The pedal steel to me makes it sound not far from certain Smiths records, possibly the kind of thing Johnny Marr almost achieved with songs like 'Stretch Out and Wait' and 'Well I Wonder.' It's kind of tragic that AMC are relatively forgotten, despite many an Uncut feature, while REM and The Smiths are taken as read. Perhaps someone ought to write one of those 33 1/3 books on 'California' or 'Everclear'? (that series has certainly hit on a few cult joys as it has advanced - 'Bee Thousand', 'In the Aeroplane Over the Sea' & '69 Love Songs' - added to the canon).

'Firefly' is the killer opener, getting straight to the heart of things with Kaphan's pedal steel, Vudi's jangly guitars and Eitzel's aching croon, "Come on beautiful..." (the line which gave its name to a tribute album of covers from artists whose material you can buy easily, e.g. the Handsome Family). AMC and Eitzel came after punk and they exhibit those influences, in different ways to bands who mined the US hardcore sound - Eitzel's lyrics can be as bleak as anything those bands could produce. 'Somewhere' has a feel not unlike their peers The Replacements and shares a title with a song on Husker Du's concept-LP 'Zen Arcade' - I guess these are the places you look for the roots of movements like emo and grunge? Ironic that both AMC and the 'Mats had songs called 'Nevermind'...

'Laughingstock' is the first track to bring Vudi's guitar to the fore, the kind of textures he displays here add that something that was missing from many an Eitzel release in the 1990s (though Kaphan did work with Eitzel on 1996's '60 Watt Silver Lining' with Mark Isham, producing an album that was better than either of the preceding two AMC albums). Vudi's sonics perfectly fit Eitzel's lyrics and vocals, the false ending effective when the band come back in. These wilder guitars aren't far from the more subtle end of post-rock...'Lonely' is a more conventional song, a folky number that could have turned up on an eighties LP by the once great REM. It has a similar feel to side two's 'Now That You're Defeated' and represents the more conventional side of the band, too apparent on 'Mercury' and 'San Francisco.' Fortunately Eitzel's songwriting and Vudi-guitar combination returns on 'Pale and Skinny Girl', probably one of those songs written about Eitzel's muse Kathleen Burns (if you believe the book 'Wish the World Away' on AMC, which Eitzel has refuted). The first side concludes with 'Blue and Grey Shirt', another slice of melancholy and rejection from Eitzel aided by Vudi's guitarwork - I do think the version on 'Songs of Love' is probably that bit better, mainly as it's minimal take there works brilliantly as Eitzel shifts up a gear for a great take on 'Gary's Song.'

'Bad Liquor' is probably one of those joke songs AMC sometimes did, sounding not that far from the rockabilly side of The Fall, or folks like the Jon Spencer's Blue Explosion. You imagine it's the kind of song they did in bars to pacify those depressed by stuff like 'Hula Maiden' and 'Room Above the Club.' Maybe it's their equivalent of the Blues Brothers' take on 'Rawhide'? (!) The final section of 'California' is killer stuff, the sparse 'Jenny' feels like a 'Pink Moon'-out-take and is definitely the model for a song like 'Down Through' by Red House Painters (whose debut LP was rumoured to be a demo pushed through Eitzel's door in San Francisco). AMC do nod to Nick Drake and what is probably his most famous song with their own 'Western Sky', their Californian take on 'Northern Sky' - though the feel is as joyfully melancholic (oxymoronic, I know!!) as 'Firefly' or certain Smiths records (Morrissey and co filled me with joy at the time, though I haven't listened to them really in years and the last time I did, it didn't all stand up). 'Highway 5' feels truly epic, like 'Pale and Skinny Girl' it has a soundtrack feel, reminding me of 'Floating Into the Night' by Julee Cruise (...weirdly...). The kiss-off is a bleak one, the dark 'Last Harbor' whose title stems from Eugene O'Neill's bleak, alchoholic-themed play 'The Long Day's Journey Into Night.' Odd that 'California' concludes on such a dark song, a blue and bruised afternoon, evening, night, and dawn. Unsurprising that Eitzel's next batch of songs included the grim 'Hula Maiden' (about a holiday in Hawaii he was going to take with his estranged father who died shortly before they were due to go - he went alone and here was the song that recorded it) and the death and loss apparent on 'Everclear' on such songs as 'Why Can't You Stay?', 'Sick of Food' and 'The Dead Part of You.' 'Everclear' remains the thinking person's 'Automatic for the People' and is probably the 'Astral Weeks' of its decade with those lyrical themes of loss and transcendent music...

The bleak California of Brautigan, Bukowski, Carver, Fante and Johnson is most definitely here. California nightmarin' if you like. Having listened to the recent reissue of David Crosby's 'If I Could Only Remember My Name' I think these records are related: the dark realities of California. My oldish car doesn't have a cd player in at present, so I drive round rediscovering old tapes - 'California' has been one I relunctantly put in the car (no one cares, no one will want to steal it...) and one I haven't taken out since. One of the many great albums of the 1980s that people forget about, and one of those albums like 'Pacific Ocean Blue' and 'Star Sailor' that really should be on CD by now.

1. 'United Kingdom' (1989) was release solely in the UK, comprising out-takes from the 'California'-sessions, some new tracks live a la 'Time Fades Away' and having a memorable cover photo taken by Kathleen Burns. It was later released on a cd with 'California' by Demon and is currently deleted.
2. 'Songs of Love' (1991) was another release on Demon Records, a live performance by a solo Eitzel on guitars borrowed from Sean O'Hagan when AMC could not afford to tour the UK. It contains 'Firefly', 'Blue and Grey Shirt', 'Western Sky', 'Jenny', and 'Last Harbor' from 'California', as well as tracks from the preceding two albums, 'Kathleen' from 'UK', Eitzel's rare solo single 'Take Courage', a dodgy take on 'Everclear's 'Crabwalk' & an early version of 'What Godzilla...' which was then known as 'Nothing Can Bring Me Down.'


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