American Music Club: Love Songs for Patriots

American Music Club
Love Songs for Patriots

The climate of this year in music has been like one giant group therapy session. Bands you never thought you’d hear from again suddenly got Lazarus fever. The Pixies. The Zombies. New York Dolls. Mission of Burma. Even VH1 has provided us with a typically insipid, kitschy service by reuniting the bands we didn’t even think we needed back in our lives. I mean, duh, how could we not have realize that seeing Berlin and A Flock of Seagulls perform again would just set the world right? Itching for Men Without Hats to rise from Rip Van Winkledom? Say the word, friends, and Bands Reunited will sprinkle some fairy dust to make it so. (Note to Bob Pollard: Guided By Voices still has a few months left if it wants to announce its reformation before the end of the year.)

The reconstruction of American Music Club earlier this year may not have received as much press as its peers’, which is to be expected. AMC was never plagued by band member catfights or ego wrestling matches; the band’s split in 1994, following a ten-year output of seven albums, was entirely amicable. No one wants to read about bands with zero internal drama — tell us what Kim called Black Francis instead! Sadly, AMC got about as much widespread recognition during its lifespan as it did while on extended hiatus. Despite a string of some of the best records of the ’90s and (perhaps in spite of) earning the infamous Kiss of Death laurels from Rolling Stone, the public just didn’t “get” the band. Or perhaps the public was never given a chance to not get the band. In the end, it doesn’t matter how AMC came to be neglected, it just was, and for those of us that knew better, that seemed to fit the band just fine.

AMC (specifically, songwriter/vocalist Mark Eitzel, bassist Dan Pearson, drummer Tim Mooney, guitarist Vudi, and multi-instrumentalist Marc Capelle, who replaces original member Bruce Kaphan) never angled for fame or fortune, always managing to promote its truth and power over its status. If you caught on to AMC the first time around, the band was impossible to ignore and all too easy to defend. The band was exceptional to a fault, it seemed; bands this good didn’t need advertisements taken out in glossy magazines. If AMC is news to you, here’s what you’ve missed: emotional juggernauts laced with Eitzel’s sardonic self-effacement; pop/rock/country/folk meta-nuggets full of bristling apology; sort of a reconstituted Basement Tapes discography for a new, lost-at-the-wheel generation; and two essential albums in Everclear and Mercury.

Make that three essential albums. Nothing could have aptly prepared me for the impassioned Love Songs for Patriots. I mean, AMC was great, but that was ten years ago. Since the band’s quiet dissolve, Eitzel released a series of solo records that never quite matched the sound and fury of AMC’s best moments (I would argue that Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby comes closest), Pearson formed the Americana outfit Clodhopper, Mooney opened his own recording studio, and Vudi drove an L.A. city bus. Not really the obvious recipe for a triumphant return, but nevertheless, here’s Love Songs for Patriots, and it’s stunning.

Love Songs for Patriots follows AMC’s natural through-line, confronting the human condition via Eitzel’s bleak ruminations on life and love. But this is a new decade, helmed by an imperial administration; as a result, love and politics are more intertwined than ever before. The album opens with the thundercrack of “Ladies and Gentlemen” (described by Eitzel as “what George Bush should have said after 9/11”). The house lights go down, the stage lights come up red, and the exits are locked as Pearson’s distorted bass ducks and jabs around a struggling dissonance of feedback and bum notes. “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time,” Eitzel sings, the words aching out his mouth, “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.”

You can accept these songs as letters in vain to the President, or as less lofty odes to people of your choosing. Love Songs for Patriots may wear its politics on its sleeve, but that sleeve is situated beneath a jacket of complexities. “It’s time to deceive,” Eitzel remarks in “Ladies and Gentlemen”, and there’s plenty of deception in these songs: the damnation of sins by the world’s leading sinner (“America Loves the Minstrel Show”); the illusionist who makes you believe “you can be anyone that you want to under the sun” (“Mantovani the Mind Reader”); the throngs of people strung along by lies and false hopes (“Your Horseshoe Wreath in Bloom”).

There are two songs here that define the density of this record: “Patriot’s Heart” and “Song of the Rats Leaving the Sinking Ship”. “Patriot’s Heart” (which gets my vote for best song of the year) examines the contemporary proliferation of American patriotism, but sets the scene in a gay strip club. AMC trump the song with erratic swagger, punctuating Eitzel’s complicated metaphors and palpable scenario with kick drum throbs and knife-like guitar stabs. Eitzel sings of a male stripper drawn to “men with sin in their eyes”: “He always says the same thing, he says / ‘So how you doin’, baby? / I’m your rod and your staff / And for a tip, you can touch me / And after a few tequilas, I become something holy… / The more you pay, the more I can break you all apart’ / And dollars pour like ashes from the patriot’s heart”. The hushed, spare “Song of the Rats Leaving the Sinking Ship” uses an acoustic guitar and Eitzel’s double-tracked vocals as its backbone. “You can laugh, you can cry, you can even bitterly grieve,” Eitzel sings in the chilling chorus melody, “But you can’t deny that it’s time to leave”. This is how Love Songs for Patriots works on so many levels: by exercising subtly, the song can be a call for Bush to leave office, for the troops to leave Iraq, or for one lover to leave another. It’s up to you.

When Eitzel is on his game like he is here, he’s the sublime strain of songwriter all others dream about late at night: deadpan, seething with black humor, acutely iconoclastic. His air of defeatism and regret is just as saddened as it is easily identifiable and funny. He hopes to find a bookstore where “the music they’d play there would be Dinosaur Jr. / And the people who worked there would be super-skinny / And super-unfriendly” (“Myopic Books”). Whether he’s attempting to accept pain’s prominence in life (“Another Morning”) or admits “I always thought my life looked much better at a distance / Now I’m just another set of eyes lost in the blur” (“Home”), his confidence is unnerving. It’s these grounding qualities in Eitzel’s songs that save his condemnations from righteousness. Because Eitzel, like all of us, is just another person on this planet, and doesn’t pretend that his secrets and faults are worth hiding.

This is the stuff of blood and guts, an album where dive bar confessions become sprawling self-revelations. I can’t stress enough how brilliant this record is, how pertinent and valuable its songs are to our lives. Most of Love Songs for Patriots‘ success lies in its ability to exist so openly, refusing to force predetermined interpretations into the listener’s cranium. If there’s any justice in this world — and Love Songs for Patriots makes an argument otherwise — people will take that $15 they saved up for the Romeo Void reunion show and use it to secure a copy of this record. Because real reunions are about more than fond memories and giggling reminiscences; they’re about taking stock of how they fit into this world now and making good on that. “Some wanna show you where the light is / Some just wanna stare at the view,” Eitzel warily whispers in “Job to Do”. Love Songs for Patriots points out that light for all to see; what we make of it is up to us.