As lead singer and songwriter of the vastly undersold American Music Club, Mark Eitzel penned ambiguous and downcast stories, tales from San Francisco's downtrodden Tenderloin that were buoyed by the band's soaring guitar lines and kinetic arrangements. He obsessed over dysfunctional relationships and the pitiful grace of a dive bar at closing time. He toiled in near-obscurity and sang "I lay all my songs at Johnny Mathis' feet" without the merest hint of irony.
On "West," his second solo album -- not including the 1991 Demon Records recording of Eitzel singing AMC tunes in Europe, which Warner Brothers plans to re-release later this year -- Eitzel still has traces of bitters in his soda, but the fog of his obscurity is lifting. The big change on "West" is the appearance of Peter Buck, now comfortable in the role of rock elder statesman. Buck is everywhere on this album: He produced, co-wrote the music and plays guitar and bass, his signature jangly guitar lines popping out from behind the compositions. Eitzel is on the road, with Buck in the band and two side projects from Buck's adopted hometown of Seattle, Tuatara and The Minus 5, sharing the bill.
"West" is sequenced like a series of mood swings, opening and closing on ballads. In Eitzel, Buck has found a wordsmith who is genuinely fond of darkness. While Michael Stipe muses whimsically about his own celebrity and the world's vast gray territories, Eitzel mulls over the small terrors and consolations of day-to-day living, his breathy voice seemingly on loan from the great Jazz Age blues singers. The ambiguous story line and murky, moody mix of "Helium" could have been from the band's brooding "Mercury," Mitchell Froom's 1993 production that marked AMC's finest hour. The album closes even more desolately than it began, with Eitzel leaning into the microphone as he slowly repeats the line, "No one cares/If I live or die."
But it's the upbeat songs where Buck and Eitzel really shine as a songwriting team. "Free From Harm" is sprinkled with warm Hammond organ riffs, and the repeated reaffirmation of the title in the chorus is almost chipper. "Three Inches of Wall," its lyrics laced with paranoia, is a 3/4-time standout built on escalating chords that pick up where the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" left off. In many of these melodically lighter moments, Eitzel's brooding lyrics undercut an otherwise happy song, as when he sings on "Move Myself Ahead," "I'm gonna move myself ahead/But I don't know how."
With "West," Eitzel firmly establishes a place for himself along the continuum of dark-hearted crooners that runs from Billie Holiday to Trent Reznor. As the Bard of Last Call, he is a scavenger picking through the wreckage of lives and relationships -- and we can only hope that, for a while at least, he doesn't find what he's looking for.