A Vivoscene Feature Review by Jason Motz
Whenever I play American Music Club‘s underrated third LP, California, I can’t help but think of the blizzard of ’96. For Christmas that year I received a stack of CDs: A mix of Bob Mould, Miles Davis and a trifecta of American Music Club: California, The Restless Stranger and Engine. Stranded indoors for the better part of a week, I “comforted” myself with Mould’s excoriating guitar and vocal exorcisms, and found bliss in the AMC CDs. Of the three, California remains the discerning fans choice as the best album in the AMC discography. Hard to argue with a stellar track listing: “Jenny”, “Firefly”, “Western Sky”, and “Bad Liquor”. That these songs are more or less unknown today but to a few critics and AMC’s devoted but slight fan base is a great shame.
California is not a Billboard-recognized classic in the halls of rock. Lost amid the hairspray and spandex of those halcyon Bon Jovi days, when George Michael and Debbie Gibson ruled Pop and rap slowly transformed itself into a respectable-and-soon-to-be-profitably-game-changing-genre, AMC’s marriage of bleary-eyed country rock and San Fran Soul was doomed to fail… on the charts that is. But anyone who heard the album back in the day probably wrote favourably of it.
Indeed, if AMC had one thing going for them it was acclaim. Rolling Stone magazine did their best to promote AMC in the early ’90s, calling principal songwriter/vocalist Mark Eitzel songwriter of the year for 1991 and the group as a whole the “hottest” of 1993. But acclaim won’t buy you an empty bag. AMC would strike a deal with Warner/Reprise in 1992 and produce some fine music off and on up into this current century, but they never made a dent against the iron walls of commercial acceptance. By 1995, the dream was over and the band parted with nary a mention from their former benefactors.
Oh well. What is a huge loss for the masses is a right awesome coup for the minority. No record collection can be considered complete or even respectable without the presence of AMC. And while there are several fine LPs that will do, let’s focus on the holy one: California.
In short, despite its emblematic title and the cultural associations one makes with the state, this is an album of deception: this is not the California of The Beach Boys, David Lee Roth, hardcore punk, Jane’s Addiction, hair metal, RHCP or LL Cool J. There is an Englishman’s melancholy to California, which puts this album in the ranks among the finest, most depressed works by John Martyn, Richard Thompson and Nick Drake. And yet, this ain’t no folk album.
Well, had Joy Division and Gram Parsons ever hooked up this is probably how things would have sounded. Is there any indication on the record of the bands’ career ambitions? Was this a misguided attempt to appeal to the Bon Jovi crowd? “Justice ain’t gonna be yours tonight,” Eitzel sings, “you’ve got a pure bright soul, but heaven don’t need it.” Fewer statements in rock are as deflating as this line from ‘Now You’re Defeated’. As a self-fulfilling prophecy, California falls somewhere between a post-punk anti-statement and long jump toward obscurity. Few bands made such a pretty mess of sustaining a career in the industry. The band doesn’t look or quite sound like nihilism incarnate, but on California the effect is the same: unveiled indifference to musical norm, taste, temperament and attitude. More subtle (and dignified) than, say, the Sex Pistols.
The album opener, “Firefly”, is a distillation of the AMC genius. The swirling country guitar that flavours this song about the ephemeral nature of life, love, sunsets, and a bottle of wine is close to perfect.
“Western Sky”, with its Chris Isaak- with-a-sinus-cold vibe, is the textbook definition of sublime.
“I hate to see you look that way, all the beauty has left your face/
that’s such an easy thing to give away/so impossible to replace”
The gut wrenching honesty in a lyric like “I won’t see you no more/ who am I to rate so high?” exemplifies a dour self-deprecation lost on the smugly ironic scenes of the late ‘80s and grunge-gorged ‘90s. Perhaps the finest moment for the band, ‘Western Sky’ would live beyond California to their latter day Warner period, becoming a staple of Mark Eitzel’s solo sets to this date.
Watch: “Western Sky”
The songs on California revel in darkness, with a muddy and caustic production aesthetic to match song matter that is booze-dependent, desperate, hollow and coarse. Not everything works however. When the protagonist in “Bad Liqour” asks “who took the good out of the bottle?”, he isn’t being ironic. A live staple, it sounds like a bad idea going nowhere in the studio. Probably never should have been put on the LP but it’s there as a reminder that AMC never were that concerned with competing with David Lee Roth or Bon Jovi.
And if “Somewhere” sounds a bit like Counting Crows, AMC were here first so any similarities are not the fault of Eitzel and his crew.
California is harsh stuff: the deadening pace of ‘Laughingstock’ with a silence befitting a holocaust, the pathetic charm of “Lonely”, (the proverbial misguided attempt at a pop single), and “Last Harbour”, where a doomed drunk ends the album asking “Are you gonna be my last harbour?
Watch: Last Harbour”
All of this from an album that came out while Michael Jackson was showing the pop world just how bad his ass was. California is a mess, the aftermath of an automobile accident made into music. The shock and the silence following a terrible trauma are physically evident, and the carnage on the ground is stark and revealing. This is where AMC dwelled at their peak, and California is but their first apex.
American Music Club’s Non-California ESSENTIALS:
“Jesus’ Hands”, taken from the album Everclear
“I’ve Been a Mess”, taken from the album Mercury
“Hula Maiden”, taken from the album United Kingdom
“In the Shadow of the Valley”, taken from the album San Francisco
“If I Had a Hammer”, taken from the album Mercury
“The Dead Part of You”, taken from the album Everclear
“Another Morning”, taken from the album Love Songs for Patriots
“In the Room Above the Club”, taken from the album The Restless Stranger
“I’m in Heaven Now” taken from the album Human Music
“Nightwatchman”, taken from the album Engine
“Royal Café”, taken from the album Everclear
“Why Won’t You Stay”? taken from the album Everclear
Watch “Why Won’t You Stay?”
Hear: The American Music Club perform live in The Current studios. Songs performed: “Home,” “All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco,” and “The Windows of the World.”