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American Music Club - The Golden Age

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Artist: American Music Club

Album: The Golden Age

Label: Merge

Review date: Feb. 15, 2008

There's a moment in "One Step Ahead," about two minutes into what seems a fairly unthreatening, literate pop song, when things take a dramatic turn. The close harmonies slip a half-step closer and turn to discord, the drums rear up in cymbal-clashing rebellion and the guitar, played by longtime AMC'er Vudi (Mark Pankler), splinters into monstrous waves of feedback. That, in a nutshell, is what's interesting about this ninth installment (and second since a long break) by Mark Eitzel's American Music Club. The songs may seem soft and pretty on the surface, but there is always a fair amount of rage lurking beneath. That depth of feeling manifests itself in any number of ways – in cutting, surgically-incisive lyrics, in casual profanity or in bursts of distorted rock cacophony – and, for the most part, it simmers, its incipient threat keeping these tunes from receding into the background.

Eitzel reconvened AMC after a 10-year hiatus for 2004's Love Songs for Patriots. The Golden Age is less political than its predecessor, but shares that album’s expansive perspective; the music sounds easy and buoyant, floating along atop jazz-leaning chord changes, tinged at times with twang, but utterly unforced. Eitzel, who made his mark with lyrical, confessional songs like "Fearless" and "The Thorn in My Side Is Gone," here sounds strongest in story songs told from other people's viewpoints: "Decibels and Little Pills," "The Grand Duchess of San Francisco" and, most strikingly, "The Dance." Even songs in the first person – "Windows on the World" and "One Step Ahead" – feel more like fictional vignettes than personal musings. The "I" is a character, not a stand-in for the songwriter.

That frees Eitzel to imagine any number of scenarios. The clubgoer in "Decibels and Little Pills" sounds about as different from him as a human being can be - holding hands with friendly strangers, caught suddenly alone when everyone she knows leaves and stripping off her shirt to an indifferent audience of frat boys. And yet, there's a common thread of loneliness, of trying to connect and failing, that ties this unexamined life to Eitzel's own, so carefully observed in song.

Later with the stunning "Dance," Eitzel describes a woman, caught in the arms of a violent man, a man who "holds his gun loose and free / like it's a toy / like an orchestra conductor / who surrenders to the joy." You can sense the casual threat long before it actually occurs, before the gun goes off and Eitzel observes, "While she was dancing with him / He was dancing with the dead." The song is couched in restrained country-rock arrangements, instruments dropping way back during the verse, then flaring into violence in the breaks. There's a chilling precision in the minimalist words and the tightly controlled music, all the more compelling because of its restraint.

"Windows on the World," is perhaps the most striking example of this half-hidden ominousness, set as it is in the doomed restaurant on top of the World Trade Towers. You can't name a song "Windows on the World" without raising certain associations these days, and yet AMC sails through the song as if it were just another bar, the site where visitors are taken for drinks; maybe there will be a band. There's a core of loneliness (at one point, a character asks, "Mark, if you're so smart / Tell me why tourists always want to get / So high?"), but no reference at all to 9/11. On one level, you wonder if Eitzel wrote the song before the attack and never revised it. On another, you have to admire his skill at juxtaposing ordinary drunken conversation and our deepest fears, casually, without ever stating the obvious.

That's how life is, really. You're bumping along, enjoying the scenery, making your deadlines, drinking with your friends and suddenly something horrible happens. The threat is always under the surface, no matter how pretty the surface can be, and that's what Eitzel captures in The Golden Age.

By Jennifer Kelly

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