CALIFORNIA – AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB (1988)
To paraphrase Malvolio: some songs are born ubiquitous, some achieve ubiquity and some have ubiquity thrust upon them. Then again, some seem to wriggle free of the ubiquity that could be just one film, TV programme, advert or cover version away – such was the route Hallelujah had to take to earn its hard-won ubiquity and Dream Baby Dream seems set to follow a similar path.
Many, if not all, of us have this type of Classic In Our Own Heads and we’ve proffered a range of them so far on TNPC – the Chills’ Submarine Bells, the Distractions’ Looking For A Ghost, Cockney Rebel’s Ritz. We can guarantee more will follow and the latest stop on the line is American Music Club’s Western Sky.
It’s a song of such simplicity and understatement yet also such a perfectly realised portrait of unfulfilled dreams, time passing and parting of the ways that it may not quite register at first. A muted arrangement, far from disguising the melody’s beauty, casts it into greater relief as Mark Eitzel recounts emotions everyone must have felt at some point (“I don’t belong in this place…you may feel the parade has passed you by”) and makes a bold promise which seems impossible to keep (“I’ll take you in my two weak hands/And I’ll throw you so high”) before the bridge brings almost complete silence and a self-deprecation at such depth that puts even the few remaining hopes at risk (“I won’t see you no more/Who am I to rate that high?”). Ultimately, all that remains is consolation but not of a hollow kind – “You can still see it shining.” The title inevitably prompts comparisons with Nick Drake’s Northern Sky (which also had a considerable influence on their later song Heaven of Your Hands) but, 270 degrees around, it occupies its own compass point and stands shoulder to melancholy shoulder with it as a deep expression of that nebulous and spurious concept, emotional intelligence.
For all its taciturn majesty, though, Western Sky is first among equals on California, a microcosm of an album with an emotional heft capable of pulling a liner across the Pacific and back again for decades. Don’t be deceived by the apparent slightness of opener Firefly – surely no one could get away anymore with a chorus, straight-faced or ironic, of “You’re so pretty, baby/You’re the prettiest thing I know” but it sounds here like the outpouring of a long-term shelf-dweller whose time has finally come, getting further even than Limey cousin Morrissey after his strange fear gripped him. More web-weaving subtlety, too from Mark ‘Vudi’ Pankler, AMC’s secret weapon and Eitzel’s amanuensis in reverse, whose textures and flourishes give beyond-words articulation to the songwriter’s lead-weighted heart – here, he does so with steel guitar that’s beyond the sucrose saturation of country’s worst excesses but tapping into the tenderness and open-heartedness it displays at its best; less incendiary, perhaps, than the Misunderstood’s Glenn Ross Campbell but with a surer route to Cosmic American Music than even Gram Parsons had (he may have coined the term but he didn’t make a great deal of it himself – bar three or four songs across his solo albums, his music, wondrous as it was, was largely terrestrial, right-in-the -soil country).
The name American Music Club is at once balmily bland, brazenly hubristic and a justifiably bold statement of intent, in keeping with their penchant for geographically blunt album titles (California, United Kingdom, San Francisco) which easily resonated enough with their postmarks to live up to the names. I would expect a song titled America to cover, at the very least, the drafting of the constitution, the Gettysburg Address, the New Deal and Watergate – but none of this is really explored in “What a drag it is, the shape I’m in/Well, I go out somewhere and I come home again.” AMC, though, really were purveyors of that elusive Cosmic American Music – if not all, then many strands of the knot woven in the last century or so are there, if only in the form of undertows – inevitably, the fathoms-deep sorrow of the blues and the rueful resignation of country but also soul’s unbreakable grip on the heart (find that on Why Won’t You Stay from 1991’s Everclear) and folk’s resilient compassion. But since America is a vast, unfathomable collage of traditions and cultures, and remains so – doesn’t it?? Even now, doesn’t it?? – AMC still import new members from other lands – as well as the aforementioned and unequivocally English Nick Drake, they drink in healthy measures of chansonniers and there’s even room for the odd dash of klezmer, or something resembling it.
Back to California – another oft-made comparison was to Tim Buckley, much more the valiant serenader of Once I Was and Sing A Song For You than the intrepid astronaut (literally, star-sailor) of Jungle Fire and The Healing Festival – but riding into battle on a steed is as bold an act as spacewalking and Eitzel is prepared to risk all in the pursuit of a heart. He sure loses it all often enough, if many of California’s songs are anything to go by.
Laughing Stock predates by three years Talk Talk’s namesake masterpiece – it’s unlikely to have been an influence but Eitzel subsequently claimed that albumas one for himself – and it simmers and fizzes with the humiliation the title implies without making it explicit. The crypic, whispered “The world is made of rock/That some grow happily on/But that’s hard for some” is followed by the gently swaggering refrain “You ask me why/That’s your alibi” which single-handedly rescues a word that recurred in some of the eponymous state’s most self-regarding music, not in its true legal sense but because it rhymes with “surprise” and “apologise” and “excuses” doesn’t (let’s exempt Like A Rolling Stone – it was first, could be interpreted as using the word properly and was recorded in New York – yep, Bob’s alibi checks out) . Then comes one of the most discreet false endings you’ll ever hear – no crescendo, no sudden burst, it simply stops for just slightly too long to qualify as a pause then resumes, like a brief drift into sleep or a surreptitious departure from the room to see if anyone’s noticed.
Blue and Grey Shirt is such an overwhelming dissection of a mind in turmoil that I should be calling it a bravura performance but it’s far too dejected, too despondent to be any such thing. If anything, it’s an anti-bravura performance – when Eitzel sings “Where’s the compassion to make your tired heart sing?/ I’m tired of being a spokesman for every tired thing,” he sounds every bit as weary as he says he is, carrying a weight of expectation that would only get more onerous – as it would for the emerging Kurt Cobain, the fuzz-pedalled Charlie Brown with the aching stomach who couldn’t be reached inside his cartoon frame and who could very well have been inclining an ear to AMC up the coast. “Now I just sing my songs for people that have gone” Eitzel sighs – really sighs – at the end of one of many songs which prompted speculation on his own life; all I’ll say is if it’s not autobiography, it’s certainly empathy and either way, its Marianas-deep.
So, too, is Highway 5, which, despite being superficially about California’s vast open landscapes, achieves a choking claustrophobia by using them as an unsubtle but still potent metaphor for empty hearts and spirits – “To the left, a beautiful California landscape/Dead ends in the sky/And to the right, beautiful mountains rise high and dry/Another futile expression of bitterness/Another overwhelming expression of uselessness.” As in so many songs before, from Whispering Grass and Raining In My Heart to Who Loves The Sun and (Pulp’s) Trees, nature offers no solace or escape but is instead a mocking, scoffing witness – all making the second heaviest and most abrasive song on California.
After Bad Liquor, easily the most contentious song on the album and one which I made my peace with only comparatively recently. Not that I dislike it in itself, it’s simply the sheer incongruity of a hardcore ode to/lament for the bottle in the midst of such intensive soul scrutiny, like a roundelay arriving in the middle of a Black Flag album. But it’s a handy snapshot of Eitzel’s past in punk bands and it’s that very positioning – track one side two in old money – that gives it the feel of a bracing shot consumed at the bar during the interval. Furthermore, liquor does, for better and worse, have a habit of showing up around the time feelings are running high. And it’s kind of funny – as with the Smiths, AMC’s wit was often overlooked and the perception of them as hangdog emoters stuck to them unjustly like a toffee wrapper on the floor of your local indie club. For more of their humour, I also refer you to second track Somewhere, particularly the encounter on the bus described in the second verse, which is like an Ivor Cutler vignette transposed from Paisley Road West to Lincoln Way.
The terrain explored by American Music Club is now as despoiled as Machu Picchu or the beaches of Goa, swarmed to, unthinkingly trampled upon, denied the care it needs and deserves. Through uninspired songwriting (as often as not with the fabled Four Chords), platitudinous lyrics and a failure to invest any imagination or even real thought into taking it in any unexpected directions, it’s experiencing a drought from which it may never recover. But a careful listen to AMC at their finest – ardently articulate, frighteningly self-aware yet never needlessly lachrymose – could show how this desert could be replenished. Who’ll start the rain? (PG).