I saw Mark Eitzel at a New Year's Eve party a few weeks ago. Really, I did. I said "hello" on my way out to the back porch to get a beer. He said "hello" back. That was the extent of our exchange. But it sure was a fun party -- pink champagne on ice, spinach dip and sauerkraut (for good luck) -- and everyone, including Eitzel, seemed to be in good spirits.
Weird to imagine, though, good vibrations flowing from a guy who's latest record, "Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out Because I Love You Too Much, Baby," sets a new high in low-spiritedness. A one-off release on relatively indie label Matador, "Caught in a Trap" seems to allow Eitzel the luxury of an even darker ride, free of cumbersome arrangements as well as commercial concerns, allowing for maximum lyrical impact. Six of the 11 songs lay bare with only Eitzel's fireplace-warm voice, his spitfire logic and a lone acoustic guitar. For the balance of the record, Eitzel tastefully enlists the swell-guy rhythm section of James McNew (Yo La Tengo) and Steve Shelley (Crucifucks, Sonic Youth), and -- the true buried treasure of the record -- Kid Congo Powers (Gun Club, Cramps, Bad Seeds, Congo Norvell) on guitar.
The gloomy-Gus-with-open-wounds role has always suited Eitzel (even though there were some downright happy moments on last year's hit-and-miss "West"), and on "Caught in a Trap," he seems all too eager to carry a few more sad sacks on his back. He's the guy at the end of the bar at 2:30 in the afternoon explaining to the bartender how his life and your life are already fucked over, and you may not even know it. The difference is, you tend to believe him because he's not in the bag. He's thoughtful, sobering and concise -- all the things you don't want to hear from a guy in a bar at 2:30 in the afternoon.
The abrupt "Are You the Trash?" wastes no time in delivering stinging relationship advice to the walked-on: "Evil gets what he wants/Evil leaves you behind/Are you the trash it left behind?" While Eitzel's subject matter reflects that consistent and pervasive disgust throughout, what's mesmerizing about "Caught in a Trap" in the end is how his lyrical delivery is so persuasive. It's a deliberate, subtle articulation of thoughtful words and sounds that work well together -- good songwriting, in short. All that, and the benefit of Powers' guitar (which sounds akin to industrial resin being burned) on the seething "If I Had a Gun."
Given Eitzel's previous torchy, troubadour leanings, it's a pleasant surprise to see him make such a raw album. He could have made an album covering, say, lost French love songs from the 19th century, recording them on a boombox. That may be in the works, but the naked grace of "Caught in a Trap" is a no-frills pleasure.