Surprise! The leader of American Music Club stealth-releases a new solo album. Surprise! It's brilliant.
Mark Eitzel's eccentricities are many. This isn't shocking news once you consider the range of styles that characterize the work of his main band, American Music Club. AMC combines delicate, folky guitar, skittish jazz drumming, deranged punk rock noise guitar leads, and (occasionally) pedal steel guitar, swathed in loads of ethereal effects. All of this is in service of Eitzel's uncomfortably honest, direct, and emotional songs. The end result is consistently brilliant, but Eitzel's solo records (which started in 1996, when the band broke up for the first time, and continue to the present day alongside the reformed AMC) demonstrate that this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his influences. His first couple of records touched on piano jazz, straightforward rock and pop, and stripped-down acoustic despair bleaker than anything his old band had recorded. More recently, he has released electronica, a covers record where he sang "Move On Up", and, bewilderingly, old AMC songs rearranged for traditional Greek instruments.
Klamath continues in this unpredictable vein and is perversely enjoyable. His last couple flirtations with laptop-generated drones and rhythms (on The Invisible Man and Candy Ass) have felt canned and harsh, but here, on songs like "What Do You Got for Me" and "Like a River That Reaches the Sea", it works towards the same delirious swirl of Everclear or San Francisco. The harmonies and relatively unadorned acoustic figures on "I Miss You" make it sound like an outtake from last year's AMC highlight, The Golden Age.
This would seem to suggest that Klamath is successful primarily because it sounds like American Music Club. In fact, there are a number of songs here with no clear analogue in the AMC discography -- the synthesized vibraphones on "There's Someone Waiting" actually sound more like something off of R.E.M.'s Up than anything else. What makes this album good is that, despite being a mostly one-man project full of synthesized overdubs, it retains the same expansive, intense spontaneity that characterized the best American Music Club work. It doesn't sound quite like it, but it feels like it.
As always, Eitzel's vocals and lyrics are spectacular. On Klamath, he rarely strains himself to go beyond a muted, whispery inflection. The only thing approaching a balls-out rocker is "The Blood on My Hands", a venomous, lumbering waltz with lyrics like "My beauty is bound for eternity / While your guts are just destined to rot". Such hostility is undercut by the chorus -- "The blood on my hands / Makes me weaker than water" -- which suggests that whoever this narrator is, he's no better than whoever he is tearing down. Other highlights include "Why I'm Bullshit", whose seemingly sardonic title belies the heavy content. Eitzel has long concerned himself with various down-and-out types -- the drunk, the sad, the self-destructive -- but here, Eitzel (or Eitzel's narrator) explores his responsibility to such characters. The repeated refrain of "But beautiful / You're always there" suggests the haunting nature of the inability or unwillingness to help someone in their hour of need. Powerful stuff.
On the spare, fragile "I Live in This Place", Eitzel sings, "I know I'll be doing this for the rest of my life / So why don't you give me back the last 20 years?" It's hard not to read this as a commentary on the lack of widespread success that has plagued Eitzel's efforts since the early '80s. Indeed, Klamath has been released without any kind of label support in the US, and is available only from Eitzel's website. He's getting a bit more publicity in England, but one doubts that this album will burn up the charts. It's a crime that he isn't better known. Eitzel describes his future like it's punishment, but based on Klamath and the last few AMC records, the prospect of Eitzel releasing albums for the rest of his life is a promising one. We should be so lucky.