The Golden Age

Sonically and in spirit, American Music Club’s 2008 release, The Golden Age, fits right in with their best material from the early 1990s. On the new record, the band sustains a gentle, drifting, melancholy mood, melding folk strums, soft organs, and the occasional AM radio harmony with longtime guitarist Vudi‘s controlled noise and emotive atmospherics. The arrangements are classy, and rarely call attention to themselves—on first listen you might not even notice touches like the vaguely mariachi horns floating low in the mix. As always, songwriter Mark Eitzel‘s vocals take center stage. His voice is at once lush and scratchy, and always seems to sound better than it strictly ought to. Usually he’ll sing the beginning of a line in a moderately sunny or even indifferent manner, and then a few breaths later, the bitter sarcasm and miserably dark humor will surface. Most American Music Club songs seem to aspire to reach a kind of dreamy lounge-pop Americana heaven, only to fall back down to earth in feedback squalls and minor-key dirges.

If The Golden Age doesn’t have heights quite so high as what can be found in the envious mock-grandeur of Mercury‘s “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” nor any moments as compellingly bleak as Everclear‘s “Sick of Food,” this is, all the same, a considerably-more-than-solid set of new tunes. As always, Eitzel’s perspective is relentlessly grim. In “Victory Choir,” for example, he dismisses God and expresses a complete lack of faith in humanity all in one breath: “You don’t need a beard and throne / To kill what you love,” he sings. But even the album’s darkest moments tend to go down easy, thanks to the understated arrangements and Eitzel’s propensity to express misery with humor and grace.

Eitzel is sometimes prone to cliche, or at least to the occasional unimaginative turn of phrase, but at his best, he’s capable of making startling observations. In the middle of “The Dance,” Eitzel pauses a moment in unfurling a tale of violence in order to observe of the perpetrator: “He holds his gun loose and free like it’s a toy / Like an orchestra conductor who surrenders to the joy.” Here Eitzel seems to be suggesting that what motivates violence might not be all that different than what motivates art— that if he were a slightly different person, he might have taken up a gun instead of a guitar when faced with frustration and misery.

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