Album of the Week, February 21: Everclear by American Music Club

AMCEverclearSinger and songwriter Mark Eitzel was born in Walnut Creek, CA; his father was in the Army, and the family moved regularly. Other than an extended stay in Ohio, Eitzel mostly grew up overseas. He formed his first band in his late teens in the UK, then brought his second group, the Naked Skinnies to San Francisco. The Skinnies had mild local success, then dissolved. Eitzel then hooked up with experimental guitarist Vudi, forming the core of the American Music Club. With an unsettled lineup, the band built a regional reputation, both for brooding indie rock and Eitzel’s often meandering, drunken rants during shows. The band released their debut, The Restless Stranger, in 1985, a mediocre moment now disowned by the band. Engine was a vast improvement, with a rich sonic palette. California, ironically, broke the group in Europe, where they maintained a significant cult following. United Kingdom faltered a bit, released only in its titular country. Eitzel released a solo acoustic album while the band’s lineup stabilized. With Eitzel, Vudi, bassist Dan Pearson, and steel guitarist Bruce Kaphan, the most consistent membership assembled to record the AMC masterpiece in 1991.

Album Everclear
Act American Music Club
Label Alias Release Date October 5, 1991
Producer Bruce Kaphan
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Why Won’t You Stay?
  2. Rise
  3. Miracle on 8th Street
  4. Ex-Girlfriend
  5. Crabwalk
  6. The Confidential Agent
  7. Sick of Food
  8. The Dead Part of You
  9. Royal Café
  10. What the Pillar of Salt Held Up
  11. Jesus’ Hands

Eitzel has always claimed that he was born to be a sad crooner, and his dark observations certainly form a key part of the band’s sound. Vudi’s guitar landscapes, sometimes brooding and slow, sometimes majestic, sometimes jaunty, provide a sympathetic pairing. With Pearson’s steady rhythms and multiple instrumentation and Kaphan’s delicate touches, the whole package became something transcendent on Everclear.

AMC songs often take very specific personal moments and craft them into universal themes. This intimate relatability is a hallmark of Eitzel’s craft as a writer and singer. Why Won’t You Stay? is a gloriously sad ballad, fit for the Brill Building if it wasn’t quite so dark. It’s a great starting point, setting up the themes of loss and longing. Eitzel lost many friends to AIDS and frequently visits those experiences in music. Rise is an angry anthem in which he struggles not to punish the victim, wishing he could find a way to help bring back normal life. Filled with jarring images, it’s propelled by an almost gospel chorus and is one of the band’s finest moments.

Eitzel frequently draws inspiration from his drinking habits as well, and the slow burn of Miracle on 8th Street centers on a relationship drowning in alcohol. Over a dark echo of instruments, he ponders the pair’s fate: “I thought I loved you more than that.” It’s a smart change of pace before things start to rock again. Ex-Girlfriend is a wonderful song of friendship with a hint of desire. The most straight-ahead rocker of the disc, it shows off the band’s versatility. Things get goofy on Crabwalk, a rockabilly sendup with giddy metaphors. With a splendid reflection of the last dregs of a pub crawl, Eitzel makes the most of a fun track.

The Confidential Agent borrows its title and pensive noir from Graham Greene. Gorgeous and aching, it offers another nice moment of sequencing. Sick of Food revisits the AIDS sickbed from another angle. Narrated in the first person, it captures the anguish of an era, propelled by gentle instrumentation until Eitzel builds to his final moment of frustration. The band goes post-punk on The Dead Part of You, an angry song of disappointment that changes things once again.

On Royal Cafe, we get another night scene, this time told in gentle country rock. It’s the most upbeat track on the album, cautiously optimistic because of the presence of friends. What the Pillar of Salt Held Up is one in a series of fragmented meditations that the band built over the course of their career. It’s a decent song with a strong central image but definitely the closest to filler on the disc. Things end on a much stronger note. Jesus’ Hands is a classic beautiful loser song. Eitzel delivers one of his finest vocals while the band provide gorgeous support. A pensive, acoustic number, it’s a perfect closer, capturing the spirit of the album in three brilliant, waltzing moments.

Everclear didn’t sell much better than its predecessors, but its clean production and amazingly solid set of songs earned it a slot on many year-end best lists. Easily the finest moment of an eclectic, often frustrating catalog, it’s a remarkable work of quiet passion, balancing uneasy beauty and stubborn despair.

FURTHER LISTENING: AMC managed two more albums before disintegrating under the pressure of Eitzel’s habits and critical success. Their catalog is very uneven, fitting into three categories. The Restless Stranger is a dud, barely hinting at what the group had to offer. Engine, United Kingdom, and Mercury all have wonderful moments but are inconsistent and burdened with some very slow songs that lack the humanity they need to succeed. California is nearly as good as Everclear, but not quite as focused. San Francisco, their last album together for a decade, is solid alt-rock with an Eitzel twist, the group’s most accessible and sometimes charming work.

Mark Eitzel went solo from 1994 to 2004, releasing a steady string of interesting albums that lack the AMC magic. West and Caught In A Trap… are the best. For the last ten years he has alternated solo and band releases. The AMC work is solid, but feels a bit like nostalgia work. Love Songs For Patriots is sturdy mid-tier Music Club and pretty consistent.

The band’s first decade is captured neatly on 1984 – 1995, a solid overview that misses a couple of high points but works well as an introduction or set for the casual fan.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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