Review Summary: California yes, but a long way from Californication
The rock landscape of the late ‘80s was marked by wildly disparate scenes; in one corner sat the glam metal bands, all hairspray, silver trays of blow and golden haired blowjobs; in another you had a slowly evolving alternative rock scene populated by young men with heavy consciences and weary hearts who’d rather have died than be caught with a pair of leather kecks around their ankles and a line of groupies stretching half way round the block. It would take a few more years and the arrival of spiritual leader Kurt Cobain before the latter fully weaponised their attack and supplanted the former, so as it stood, for four or five years both groups coexisted in an uneasy state of disharmony.
At the vanguard of this alternative scene were the likes of R.E.M and Hüsker Dü, bands who wrote introspective, frequently socially conscious lyrics, but still remembered how much fun it is to plug in a guitar and play it loud. As is ever the case with new musical movements soon subsets emerged on the fringes who wanted to drive this sound into more niche directions; some like The Field Mice pushed the fey jangle element as far as it could stretch while others took a gloomier path, accentuating the most miserabilist ticks of the genre and building from there.
These depressive acts were labelled pioneers of ‘slowcore’ or ‘sadcore’, titles that leave the uninitiated in no doubt they’re about to come into contact with a particularly virulent strain of the unhappy times. American Music Club were the low burning leading lights of this breakaway faction and in Mark Eitzel boasted a singer who sounded so wounded, awkward and alcohol dependent that it would have been a stretch for the listener to imagine him raising a smile, let alone an erection. For surely AMC are the sound of early onset impotence, whisky induced incontinence and romantic inadequates calling their exes from the drying out centre.
All of which is a quite wonderful thing and by 1988 the band were well on their way, having successfully established their winning sad-sack credentials over the course of two formative albums chock-full of songs about bitter regrets and resigning yourself to watching the few remaining friends you have slowly drink themselves to death. The only problem was that the band’s close buddies R.E.M were mobilising for a full on mainstream assault while they were still stuck at first base; time to play catch-up.
AMC’s response was ‘California’, a necessary exercise in tightening up the band’s sound and raising their song writing game. In particular the album would include a handful of tracks of such outstanding quality they would come to define Eitzel’s entire career. 'Western Sky’ lives up to the Nick Drake association the title alludes to, Mark’s vocals striking the perfect balance between strident richness and intimate softness. Pedal steel guitar has rarely sounded more beautiful than it does on album opener ‘Firefly’, most probably the only love song to ever successfully rhyme ‘paralyse’ with ‘anaesthetise’.
Equally impressive are the finger-picked vignettes ‘Jenny’ and ‘Last Harbour’, and along with the bleak yet dulcet ‘Blue & Grey Shirt’ and ‘Laughing Stock’ these songs together form a core of classics. The remaining material may drop a shade or two in quality but nonetheless play their part, helping to flesh out the album with some more varied textures and tempos; a couple of songs approximate a ‘countrified Smiths’ aesthetic (‘Now You’re Defeated’, ‘Pale Skinny Girl’) while others pay homage to early years R.E.M at their most rocking (‘Somewhere’, ‘Highway 5’).
‘California’ was a critical success and encouraged AMC to take a true swing for mainstream acceptance on the follow-up releases ‘Everclear’ and ‘Mercury’, two albums that saw the production polish ramped up to the nth degree. The approach nearly paid off with Eitzel winning a Rolling Stone songwriter award based on the strength of his work on ‘Everclear’; however on the one crucial indicator of commercial longevity, sales, they still came up short. As a result AMC slowly faded into relative obscurity and are now looked back at as a cult act, well-regarded also-rans. Clearly there was a limit to how much navel-gazing the public at large could take but it should still be remembered that AMC played their part in winning the war against ‘80s douche-bag decadence.