Mark Eitzel has spent the better part of the last 15 years—first with his band American Music Club, and more recently, with his solo career—cementing his reputation as one of the world’s finest songwriters. He’s racked up accolades from here to Timbuktu; if there’s one thing that’s never eluded him, it’s critical acclaim. Commercial success, of course, has been another story, and for the most part, he continues to languish in “critically acclaimed cult figure” status.
After creating some of the more brilliant records of the early ‘90s with AMC (see Mercury and San Francisco), Eitzel’s solo career has been uneven, but mostly satisfying. Over the course of four solo records (five counting Courage and Confidence), Eitzel has leapt about from relatively straightforward pop/rock (collaborating with R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck on 1997’s West), to jazzy torch songs (60 Watt Silver Lining, his first solo effort) to his last solo record, The Invisible Man, which found him diddling about with Pro Tools and electronica. However, even the most difficult of his solo efforts, 1998’s stark, unadorned Caught In a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much Baby (the title of which was nicked from a line in an Elvis tune) had substance and masterful songs to spare.
With all this flitting about, no one would ever accuse Eitzel of being too predictable, or of resting on his laurels. However, Music for Courage and Confidence completely abandons Eitzel’s main strength—his phenomenal songwriting skills. See, Courage and Confidence is that most dodgy of beasts—the covers album. Now, don’t get me wrong, covers are fun. I always love to hear bands bust out cover songs when they play live—somehow, a band tearing into one of their favorite tunes by an artist they admire is always a great sight to see. As far as recorded versions of cover songs go, well, they’re usually better suited to B-sides and compilation tracks, unless the artist is really going out on a limb with a grand reinterpretation of the tune. Whole records full of cover songs, then, are especially troublesome, ‘cause if I’m gonna pay money for a favorite artist’s new record, I want to hear their new songs, not their interpretations of other people’s songs. Of course, there are exceptions, but by and large, covers records seem unnecessary additions to an artist’s catalog, and they usually don’t serve fans of either the artists or the songs terribly well.
Unfortunately, Courage and Confidence exhibits practically all of the possible flaws of cover records, and virtually none of the potential pluses. The main reason that this record fails so dramatically is simply due to the songs that Eitzel chooses to cover. Eitzel has never made a secret of his love for Vegas-styled schmaltz—witness the early AMC tune “The Hula Maiden”, which revels in it. However, while this has surfaced as a touchstone in many of Eitzel’s lyrics over the years, the musical side of it has thankfully been subsumed in Eitzel’s immaculate songcraft. Not so here, where Eitzel’s love for all things maudlin and cheesy is put proudly on display.
Musically, a lot of these songs could actually pass for simplified Eitzel tunes—he’s certainly adept at transforming any given tune into his signature style. However, when you look closer at the songs he’s covering—from Kris Kristoffersons Help Me Make it Through the Night to Culture Clubs Do You Really Want to Hurt Me to Snowbird, a song popularized by Anne Murray, you see, plain as day, Courage and Confidence‘s Achilles heel. Anne Murray, people! When he’s not choosing songs that are just plain ridiculous in their own right, he picks tunes that he doesn’t have a hope in hell of pulling off convincingly. For instance, in his hands, the funky strut of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” is turned into a loungey ballad—and Eitzel sound positively ridiculous muttering “I know, I know, I know / I’ve got to leave the young things alone”.
His take on “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” sounds oddly like an electronica-lite version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”—at least at first, with the strangely out of place bed of roiling organs. One of the only actual decent songs on the record, Phil Ochs’ “Rehearsals for Retirement”, is marred by a bland, emotionless reading by Eitzel that simply refuses to take flight.
In fact, the only song worth hearing on this entire collection is Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up”, which actually manages to retain some of the funkiness of the original, thanks to Joey Waronker’s expert drumming and the band’s general tightness. The fact that Eitzel actually bothers to invest the song with some emotion helps quite a bit as well, since throughout much of the rest of the record, he seems content to lazily croon his way through the set.
When I saw Eitzel play live last month, he was magnificent. Although he was ostensibly touring behind Songs for Courage and Confidence, he thankfully played only a handful of songs from it. However, when “Rehearsals for Retirement” came up in the set, he infused it with a depth of emotion that’s sorely missing on the recorded version; when he busted out “Help Me Make it Through the Night” in his encore, his performance was side-splittingly funny, and featured him getting down on his knees and belting out the tune to the audience, while opener Tim Easton, who had joined him onstage for the encore, gamely strummed along in the background.
At this show, Eitzel also debuted several new songs, which were uniformly phenomenal. These songs gave me great hope that his next record will find him picking up where he left off with The Invisible Man, with Music for Courage and Confidence proving itself to be little more than an ill-advised detour in an otherwise very interesting, mostly successful career.