If push comes to shove and, on threat of death or Miley Cyrus, I was forced to name my favourite band or artist I’d have to name Mark Eitzel, and his band American Music Club. Both Eitzel as a solo artist, and the albums he’s made with his former band. So, even with the threat of murder by Wrecking Ball I still couldn’t choose just one…
And if I’m needing to choose five albums that I’d take with me to a desert island, I’d likely hum-and-hah about four of them. But without a moment’s hesitation, I’d choose Mark Eitzel’s 60 Watt Silver Lining to top the list.
Recorded and released soon after the first break-up of American Music Club, the band going its separate ways in 1994 demoralised and deeply in debt after being critic’s darlings for a number of years but receiving no commercial success or widespread acclaim. The album marks a significant departure, sound-wise, from Eitzel’s former band. Where American Music Club had backed Eitzel’s distinctive baritone and wry lyrics with a complex palate of styles ranging from rock, country, noise and alternative, on 60 Watt Silver Lining he recorded with a number of San Franciscan jazz musicians (and Bruce Kaphan, American Music Club’s multi-instrumentalist).
The result was a surprisingly smooth, West Coast jazz-tinged album, that framed Eitzel’s voice and sometime sweet, sometimes tragic lyrics perfectly, allowing the songs, characters and stories to stand front and centre.
The album opens with a cover of Carole King’s “No Easy Way Down”. And with the lyrics “we all love to climb to the heights, love, where our fantasy world can be found / but you know in the end when it’s time to descend that there is no easy way down” Eitzel sets the tone for the album to follow. Eleven of his own songs penned over the years spent with American Music Club, all with a deeply personal bent. Eitzel, a veteran of San Francisco’s punk scene and survivor of the city’s AIDs epidemic, a wry, quiet observer, sitting in a gay bar nursing a drink, watching, thinking.
He sings of bartenders who have the gift of pardon, of fag-hags with an unfounded belief in love and a heart a little bigger than politeness can endure, of watching sun glitter off the tidal flats at low tide wishing the sea would make all his decisions for him.
Some of the tracks are upbeat, some sombre, but all bring the sound of sitting in a bar as the night creeps on. There’s a band playing something jazzy in the corner, and perched on a stool is Eitzel, not engaging with the audience, just singing these songs hoping someone in the bar will stop talking for a moment and let themselves hear the experience, pain and hope he sings of. But he’s outside, beyond, seemingly distant, even in this small, smoky bar.
This weird perspective won’t let me breath in the smell of Eden
In your eternally open eyes, I barely see you
I barely see you, and everything is beautiful,
But not you or me.
The album’s centre is the heart-breaking “Mission Rock Resort.” Over a sombre, slowly pulsing swing, Eitzel sings of someone – a friend? an ex-lover? – who he’s bought a drink for in a bar that has seen better days, who is trying to manipulate him into something the junkie needs. “It’s sad when you try to manipulate me,” he whispers, “it’s sad when it doesn’t work anymore.” Because Eitzel is tired; he seems to love this person, but he’s unable to struggle anymore. And when they reveal that they’re worried that they forgot to use bleach on a needle, his only response is a sad, exasperated “well, so what, so what, so what?”
It’s a song of saying goodbye, of realising that some people may be beyond help, that nothing you can do or say will change who they are and their path towards self-destruction. And, with the refrain, “nothing changes, nothing changes, nothing changes, not ever” you can hear Eitzel’s heart break.
Powerful and poignant, the product of a late-night singer-songwriter at his absolute peak.