American Music Club
Love Songs For Patriots
n 1994, after eleven years together, American Music Club decided to call it a day. Seven albums, several record labels, various line-up changes, miles of fawning adoration in the press, millimeters of currency from records sold; enough was, apparently, enough. The band’s music would be called ‘Americana’ now; yet, while the term now merely suggests an updating of country and folk, AMC were truly eclectic, drawing on everything from blues to noise-rock in their brutally beautiful songs of love and hate. Without financial incentives, things couldn’t last forever. The scabrous sentiments of the band’s own “Over and Done” (on 1993’s Mercury) seem appropriate: “Yeah we had a good time, we had some fun. And now we wanna get the whole thing, over and done.”
Yet, somewhat surprisingly, the band’s break-up, after their final album for Reprise, San Francisco, was amicable enough. Main songwriter Mark Eitzel’s career was the most high-profile post-AMC, yet the rest of the band (drummer Tim Mooney, bassist Dan Pearson, guitarist Vudi) concerned themselves with their own musical projects. Pearson played with Eitzel on his first solo record, and every so often tantalizing glimpses of fractions of the band would be reported from stages around San Francisco; yet, like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, they were always missing that one final piece that would constitute a real reformation. Gone, but not forgotten: to go along with Eitzel’s solo records, it seemed that a week didn’t pass without someone or other announcing breathlessly to an interviewer that they’d “seen AMC and ran off to form a band right away”. Unfortunately, one of those people was Ryan Adams; still…
So it’s rather surprising that, 21 years after the band formed, they decided to get back together for a few shows and, whaddya know!, we have a new American Music Club record to pick apart. Good thing or bad thing? Reunions can be a pretty terrible spectacle to behold (two words: Velvet Underground); thus it’s absolutely justified to ask WHY people feel that it’s time to ‘put the band back together’. If you believe Black Francis, the Pixies’ own Mr. Motivator was money; for others, like Mission of Burma, the main drive seemed to be that, whatever they’d wanted to achieve, they hadn’t quite reached the summit and planted their flag. Being a generous fellow, I’m adding AMC to the latter group (given that they’re unlikely to trouble the charts with this effort).
But who cares about those fickle, fickle charts? Love Songs For Patriots is far, far better than it has any right to be, an album that sounds like a natural progression of the band’s career and one that, if they’d made it instead of San Francisco, might just have held them together for a bit longer. Yet they couldn’t have; Love Songs is an album of its time, owing its existence in equal parts to the personal and the political, a brother-in-arms to REM’s Green that attempts to pare away the unnecessary flab accompanying every well-meaning rocker’s attempts at addressing current issues and to lay bare the simple personal inadequacies that lie behind every inhuman act. Album opener “Ladies and Gentlemen” pulls no punches, acting as the band’s own Declaration of Inadequacy to those that “can’t live with the truth”; over Pearson’s bottom-scraping fuzz bass, Eitzel pleads “Ladies and gentlemen it's time / For all the good that's in you to shine / For all the lights to lose their shade / For all the hate that's in you to fade”. For someone who once declared ‘there's nothing in the world outside / Just some things I see from the side’, it seems that Eitzel has, like many of us, realized that the realm of politics is too important to entrust to politicians. Track two, however, finds the band back on the familiar ground: a letter to a post restant address, to Eitzel’s deceased girl/friend Kathleen Burns, whom he’d always sworn that he’d never write another song about. It’s pleasant enough, and Eitzel doesn’t put a foot wrong lyrically, but it feels too sweet after the blow to the head of “Ladies”. So, fittingly, track three sees us thrown back into reality to witness the gay stripper of “Patriot’s Heart”, whose hustle consists of an acknowledgement of mutual deception implicit in any sad transient coupling: "Give me all your money and don't tell me what you're thinking / I'm the past you wasted / I'm the future you're obliterating." Again, the musical backing is just as thrillingly ugly and grotesque as “Ladies”; Kurt Weill would be proud of this jarring burlesque scene, the bilious portrait of corruption in all its glory. You can play this song and think of politicians, or officialdom, or your favourite target of hatred—its strength lies in its subtlety, its ability to point at decaying humanity without ever lifting a finger.
And the album continues in this flip-flop of good cop-bad cop for quite some time; “Love Is”, a straightforward enough song, precedes the piloerection-producing “Job To Do”, which features an extended coda of jagged feedback squalling from Vudi that will thrill every fan of Neil Young’s “Weld”. The whole thing is sustained until the final two tracks, “Song of the Rats Leaving the Sinking Ship” and “The Devil Needs You”, which both manage to walk the difficult line between seeming to address specific issues currently afflicting America, yet work equally well as songs to absent or lacking lovers, or, well, whatever malaise currently afflicting you. The seven-and-a-half-minute long “The Devil…” is a particularly fitting ending to the album, all atonal horns and faded keyboard lines over confident, almost militaristic drumming. Yet, even at this track’s bleakest moment, Eitzel still manages to infuse his lyrics with a sardonic half smile, like he’s sharing a joke with the listener, like he knows exactly how bleak these lyrics sound but, hey!, he’s just telling it like it is, babe. Look, he’s saying to the listener, I’m just a singer, I just write this stuff, whatever you make of it is your own deal—but I still hope you understand what I mean. And with that Mark Eitzel and the rest of the band put their instruments down, remind the listeners that happy hour just ended at the bar, and that it’s time to go home.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - OCTOBER 18 - OCTOBER 24, 2004
Reviewed by: Dave McGonigle
Reviewed on: 2004-10-18