Sunday, February 3, 2008
American Music Club - California
While working as a Music Director for the student radio station, I fielded weekly calls from record companies trying to push their products onto our playlist. Most of them were cool and a few were cooler than others were. One of the coolest was a person named Jay.
Jay worked at Frontier records, an independent label out of San Francisco best known for releasing Suicidal Tendencies’ first album. It sold enough to fund their operations for a few years and, along the way, signing a few good acts that were totally different from the label’s main source of income. Jay turned me on to a good Thin White Rope album (one that I am still looking for today, In The Spanish Cave) and I can never thank him enough for encouraging me to listen to American Music Club’s third album, California.
A lot of people are going to claim that they new American Music Club during their early days, but allow me to call bullshit on that. Nobody heard of American Music Club in the late 80’s, me included. In fact, if Jay had not been doing his job, I would have overlooked California, and from what I remember, there were a lot of college stations across the country that ignored Jay and did not bother to take it out of the shrink-wrap.
That’s a shame because almost instantaneously I could recognize that leader Mark Eitzel was doing something special with his words. Musically, it didn’t fit with anything being released in 1988, which may have contributed to the album’s ultimate demise. Pedal steels, acoustic guitars, and a gentle restraint abound throughout the record, which made it an anomaly among its peers.
All of this lends perfectly to one of the country’s best and overlooked songwriters. Eitzel’s light shines brightly here, perhaps never to be matched again, with “Somewhere,” “Lonely,” and “Blue And Grey Shirt” being the three cuts that we whittled down from the album and placed on the station’s playlist.
“Blue And Grey Shirt” was an unusual choice, but it’s the best song on the album. Eitzel sings of a friend’s final days after suffering from AIDS. Brilliantly subtle, the line “Where’s the compassion/To make your tired heart sing/’Cause I’m tired of being a spokesman/For every tired thing” speaks volume at the lack of empathy that the Reagan administration seemed to demonstrate towards the victims of this unfortunate disease.
Most of the songs on California fall into a category of slow to medium tempo, brooding folk-country, “Bad Liquor” breaks that mold and fails miserably. At less than two minutes, “Bad Liquor” sounds like a shitty song from a farm-league Replacements band, drunkenly barked through a megaphone and destroying the mood that California would have perfectly created otherwise. For whatever reason, Frontier records stupidly chose to promote this particular cut, sending radio stations with a pint of shitty peach schnapps with an American Music Club’s “Bad Liquor” label placed strategically over the original one on the bottle. Clever idea, I suppose, but this was not the track to be focusing on.
Aside from that awful detour, the rest of California is a haunting and overlooked gem that was quietly released to little fanfare. And if not for the dutiful efforts of one underpaid employee at the band’s record company, I would have completely missed it too.