Issue #158: Mercury by American Music Club
April 22, 2019
Released On March 23, 1993
Released By Reprise Records
This is a story that starts with Napster and goes backwards in time from there — at least for a while. I’m sure there’s a whole generation of music fans in the year 2019 who are too young to really have much context for Napster; too young, even, to remember a time when there was any difficulty or cost involved in hearing almost any music recorded in the history of recording technology. These days, the whole “illegal file-sharing” Pandora’s box opened by Napster seems almost quaint; it turns out it was streaming technology, which came along almost a decade later, that really ate the lunch of angry musicians and record companies with a whole lot to lose. The likes of David Lowery and Metallica have bigger things to worry about now — forty-somethings like me are probably the only ones who even fuck around with peer-to-peer networks anymore. The teenagers amongst our readership may not even understand music as something you own, rather than something you just pick out of the cloud that constantly surrounds you.
But if you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, as I did, or even earlier, you knew a time when the vast majority of music was completely out of your reach; when, for every new album you were able to afford at the record store, there were a hundred, a thousand, a million more you heard good things about, desperately wanted to hear, but were financially unable to purchase at a cost of ten bucks a pop. And so, you were just shit out of luck. Oh sure, back before Napster and its descendants came along, all us music nerds found various ways to defray the costs of obtaining as much music as possible — we traded blank tapes and copied the new records we’d bought for our friends, just as they did the same for us. We purchased albums on the cheap, in cutout bins, thrift stores, and used-vinyl emporiums. We taped stuff off the radio (there were radio stations worth listening to and transcribing to tape back then, believe it or not; it was rare, but it happened). We did what we could.
But sometimes there was a band or an album that strongly piqued our curiosity, but remained stubbornly out of reach — maybe because it had been out of print for fifteen years, maybe because none of your friends cared about it (making dubbing it from someone an impossibility), or maybe just because other things were more attention-grabbing, or easier to find at the record store. And you spent years hearing about the band, wondering about them, trying to translate the things you’d read and heard about them into hypothetical sounds inside your head, but never once heard a note by them.
Or maybe the situation was even weirder and more contradictory than that. Such was my situation with American Music Club, a band I was first turned onto during my early-teenage days of rabidly reading Rolling Stone. At that time (the late ’80s), it was the best gateway to music outside the mainstream I could get my hands on. In those barren pre-Nirvana days, I found bands as varied as Sonic Youth, The Chills, and Dinosaur Jr within their pages for the first time. And they did a feature story on American Music Club right around the time that their 1991 album, Everclear, came out. The story greatly intrigued me, as did subsequent record reviews. But when I saw the music video for “Rise,” that album’s lead single, on 120 Minutes, I was… underwhelmed. I used to dub all the videos I liked onto 6-hour compilation VHS tapes back then. I had about 35 of them by the time I graduated high school, so I liked a lot of what I saw. But I didn’t tape “Rise.” And American Music Club’s contribution to that now-forgotten monster compilation of 1993, No Alternative, didn’t do much for me either.
That could have been it for me and AMC, but then in 1994, I became a regular reader of Jack Rabid’s massive biannual tome of indie/punk music, The Big Takeover — the only music mag that was both knowledgeable as hell about the punk rock underground and also open-minded enough to offer substantive coverage of the then-up-and-coming shoegaze scene I dearly loved. Rabid’s enthusiasms went far beyond punk and shoegaze, though — not only did he get me stoked on Mega City Four and Lush, he also turned me on to vintage psychedelic pop from The Hollies and the pre-disco Bee Gees, made me aware of unsung US indie groups like Idaho and For Against… and he kept on, over the decade or so after I discovered his mag, telling me how great American Music Club were.
I didn’t have a high-speed internet connection in 2001. When I could get online at home, it was through the glacially-paced skree-skronk of dialup modems. More often in my apartment-hopping, couch-surfing 20s, I had to make do with stolen moments in coffee shops or at friends’ houses. I could check email, update my livejournal occasionally, but download music? No matter how desperately I wanted to, I had no access to such things.
Then one evening, I was over at the apartment where most of my bandmates lived, and a heavenly confluence of circumstances occurred. They had recently acquired a cable connection. They had a CD burner. They were willing to let me grab an extra CD-R and some time on their Napster account (this is how long ago this was — even the guys who had all this stuff had it on a communal machine combined from partial components owned by all three roommates. When one of them moved out later that year, he took his monitor, and all three of them lost access). I had a copy of the latest issue of Big Takeover in my backpack. I knew a golden opportunity when I saw it; I frantically flipped through the mag, queueing up one, maybe two songs by each band I was curious about.
Rabid’s ongoing evangelism for American Music Club had its effect — especially since he’d told me enough about them, over the years, to make me intrigued even despite my earlier lack of interest in the few songs I’d heard by them. I knew, for example, that singer Mark Eitzel wrote fascinating lyrics and gave his songs evocative titles that were sometimes entire complex sentences. Even the short ones hinted at fascinating emotional depths. Going on titles alone, I downloaded two songs that night that seemed most promising to me: “I’ve Been A Mess” and “What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life” — both of which happen to come from American Music Club’s 1993 album, Mercury.
Those two songs, the first two on the mix CD I made that night, were the ones that finally clicked. In particular, “I’ve Been A Mess” did marvelous things with a relatively predictable mournful country ballad of a chorus (“I’ve been a mess since you’ve been gone”), surrounding it with verses imagining Lazarus as a heartbroken, alienated loner horrified to realize that Jesus has just snatched his long-desired eternal rest from him. Eitzel’s passionate vocals and moving, eloquent lyrics sit atop thickly layered musical mood — Eitzel and guitarist Vudi’s intertwined acoustic guitar and mandolin, Bruce Kaphan’s ghostly, melancholy pedal steel, Tim Mooney’s brushed drums, all combine to create a sound that is slow and smooth in a decidedly un-punk way. That’s probably what had turned me off about AMC initially, but when I heard “I’ve Been A Mess,” I realized that this was exactly the sort of sound needed to make Eitzel’s post-punk take on torch-singing most effective.
At the song’s climax, following a powerful guitar solo that, like many of Vudi’s solos on Mercury (that of “Challenger” in particular) shows the band’s closest connections to the distorted atonality of punk, the band fell to a hush, one pedal steel note tensely humming as Eitzel fills the sonic foreground, delivering a show-stopping bridge verse in a tone somewhere between a croon and a howl: “Your beauty is just the slap in the face that’s gonna bring me back to life, back to another sky that’s blue. It’s gonna turn me into another great American zombie. So hungry… so hungry for you.”
Goddamn. I was in. There was no question of going back to download the full album — such access would no doubt take weeks or even months to open up, and I didn’t have that kind of time. I needed it ASAP. So I used the fact that the bookstore I worked for at the time occasionally ordered out-of-print books on half.com (man, remember that? Back before Amazon controlled everything?) to finagle a store order for a used CD copy of Mercury.
When it showed up in the mail at work a few days later, I waited until closing time and popped it into the CD player. I was in some pretty dire financial circumstances at the time, and often slept at the shop Friday night rather than ride my bike the 10 miles home after we closed, only to ride back another 10 miles to open the store back up eight hours later. Those nights weren’t exactly glamorous or fun, and I really don’t miss that time in my life, but damn if that darkened bookstore wasn’t the perfect place to hear Mercury for the first time, to hear that soft piano and pedal steel introduction, followed by Mark Eitzel beginning to sing just as the rhythm section crashed in: “Why don’t you be good for something, and draw down the shades on a sun that’s been up all night crying, on a sun that’s been up all night afraid?” As soon as “Gratitude Walks” got rolling, I knew I hadn’t just been lucky in the songs I’d downloaded — this band was the real deal, and I only wished I’d bought one of their albums earlier.
I own several today, and while I will swear by California, Everclear, and Love Songs For Patriots as being nearly equivalent to Mercury, that first album I got by them is still my favorite, for so many reasons. The thing that always threw me about American Music Club in the early days was that the band simultaneously had a strong punk background, which was always emphasized in their press, and that when I actually listened to them, they had such an un-punk sound. Aside from occasional outliers, the aforementioned “Challenger” being the most obvious, soft and slow is the standard AMC approach. At first, you might not see what the hell could possibly be punk about that. At 15, at 18, I sure didn’t.
But as a sad 26-year-old reduced to spending nights on the couch in the back room of my job, I heard it all too clearly. This was music of disillusionment, alienation, and frustration. On “If I Had A Hammer,” with Vudi’s atonal squallings obscured in the mix by Kaphan’s crying pedal steel, the rhythm section built to a crescendo as Eitzel sang, “I don’t know if I’ve reached the bottom yet, and I don’t know if the ice has finally begun to set. I feel time pass like a joy I tried so hard to relearn. But somewhere along the line, I passed the point of no return.” And wherever I was listening — often with the lights turned off — I wondered if I was almost there myself.
Eitzel’s lyrics are the most immediately brilliant and unforgettable aspect of this album. Combined as they are with music that often seems to strive for background layering rather than overt impact, it might seem like his words, delivered in his powerful baritone, are what the whole thing is all about. And yet it’s obvious upon repeated listens that what really drives the point home are the subtly brilliant textures added by the band playing behind him. Nowhere is this more evident than “Apology For An Accident,” my personal favorite of Eitzel’s many incredible lyrics, on which he dispenses with any pretense of rhyme in exchange for a gripping account in which a desolate, heartbroken man throws his pain back into the face of an ex-lover he feels has been cavalier with his emotions. Lines like “I’ve been praying a lot lately — it’s because I no longer own a TV” and “I’m an expert in all things that nature abhors: the look of disgust when I touched your skin” might not quite connect when rendered as prose, but when delivered by Eitzel at peak fury, they are just devastating.
And yet, for a man with a history of punk rock vocals, his voice never breaks or distorts. The band behind him stays calm, gives his luscious baritone an equally gorgeous bed on which to rest. People have thrown around terms like “slowcore” and “sadcore” for years to try and explain how American Music Club can both sound the way they sound and be as punk as they are, but I don’t know that there’s some easy genre descriptor that can explain them away. Instead, I think we have to look at the song on this album that most strongly highlights the contradiction in order to see the way in which the two ideas are not opposed at all, but instead one and the same. That song, of course, is “Johnny Mathis’ Feet.”
In it, Eitzel, the most atypical of crooners, approaches Mathis, that most archetypal of crooners, to ask his advice. He portrays himself as a desperate man singing from a point of abject dissolution, asking Mathis to tell him what he’s doing wrong as a singer — why he hasn’t been able to make a lasting connection with his audience, why so few people seem to understand what he’s going for. And of course, Mathis doesn’t get Eitzel either — at least, not at first. But by the last verse, their conversation attains the enlightenment Eitzel seeks. “Johnny looked at my old collection of punk rock posters,” Eitzel tells us. “Anonymous scenes of chaos, disaffection, and torture. And he said, ‘You were on the right track, but you’re a lamb jumping for the knife.’ He said, ‘A real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight.'”
What Mathis (or at least the character of Mathis, played by Eitzel) is pointing out is the fact that, while massively popular singers who pour emotion and heartache into their songs find a connection with their audiences that way, they aren’t really putting their personal lives into those songs. They are portraying characters whose resemblance to their actual lives is irrelevant. Eitzel’s post-punk take on heartfelt, emotion-driven songs is just the opposite — all of it is intensely informed by his own life, his own experiences, his own worldview. No one but Mark Eitzel could write this album’s most devastating lines: “You were a scarecrow looking for a bonfire to sleep on” (“The Hopes And Dreams Of Heaven’s 10,000 Whores“), “What happens to the rat that stops running the maze? The doctors think he’s dumb, but he’s just disappointed” (“Hollywood 4-5-92“), “All I want out of life is to hide somewhere. Will you find me?” (“Will You Find Me?“).
And that’s probably why most people don’t get American Music Club, why even after a 30-year career, Eitzel remains an acquired taste with a devoted but limited cult following. The people who are looking for this sort of cutting emotional honesty expect it to be delivered in a far more raw, harsh fashion. The ones who want a polished sound backing a gorgeous voice want that voice to dispense platitudes rather than the stinging witticisms and brilliant barbs that are Eitzel’s stock in trade. But for the few that can find their way onto American Music Club’s wavelength, unique treasures await. I’m glad I fought past my initial suspicions. For the past 15 years, it’s been worth it, and I’m sure it will continue to be for the rest of my life.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Discrepant rock music that’s riveting in its idiosyncrasies & unforgettable in its sincerity.
Mercury is what emotional depth sounds like. At the very surface, you have the considerable emotive power of Mark Eitzel’s singing; the hurt is right there, waiting for you the moment you press play. There’s no mistaking it. Once you start digging into Eitzel’s lyrics, that hurt gains shape. Giving up is a major theme, from the rat that stops running the maze in “Hollywood 4-5-92” to the emotional exhaustion of “What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life” (“I felt everything I’m gonna feel / Cried all the real tears I’m gonna cry”) to “Over And Done,” which communicates defeat from its title to its conclusion: “Yeah we had a good time, we had some fun / And now we wanna get the whole thing over and done.” Giving up can mean admitting that you’ve lost control, and Mercury visits and revisits the visceral archetype of falling. In “If I Had A Hammer,” Eitzel wonders if he’s reached the bottom yet. In “Gratitude Walks,” he talks about “the kind of applause that gets louder the lower you sink.” The most vivid representation of descent comes in “Keep Me Around,” in which you’re invited to imagine having nothing to hold on to, and “the sound the air makes as I fall.” It’s a pretty dark place to go, but if you’re willing to drill down even more — we’re basically honorary members of the Armageddon cast at this point — you come out the other side in a state of hard-earned wisdom. There’s a zen-like quality to the way “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” calls for ego denial via learning to disappear. The imagined Mathis advises, “A real showman knows how to disappear in the spotlight,” an idea that feels wonderfully full-circle, given the album’s central themes. (There’s a Father John Misty comparison to be made here, but that’s a whole other conversation.) From surface-level hurt to ego-free enlightenment — it’s all there in Mercury for those willing to dig.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Cute… attractive… gorgeous. In the little swatch of the English language we reserve to describe the beauty we see in others, there lives a cache of words that are used the same way but that are not interchangeable. Everyone has a word that is the most fitting and truly descriptive of their features, how their personality and experience infuses and illuminates those features. Even in moments when they’re being just across the board adorable or sexy or whatever, those features will reset to their normal, come back into their own, and that subjective truth will reinstate once again. Hearing Mark Eitzel croon over Mercury, the sixth album from indie band American Music Club, I was drawn over and over to his beautifully deep, emotive voice. The album certainly plays to that deep emotion in many tracks; there is a quiet sincerity of “Gratitude Walks” that couldn’t be sung by a soprano in the same way, pulling out that lulling agreement from the listener, weighing the depth of those repeated, drawn out words. To bookend the album, “Will You Find Me?” reads like the private inner thoughts from a late night alone, almost dreamed by someone who knows love and finds it elusive. At its height, the plaintive “I’ve Been A Mess” is a subtle and powerful crest of the album, a raw wound opened, a heart beating out of its chest. And while not upbeat exactly, a slightly more up tempo “Hollywood 4-5-92” bears a sharper edge that pulls down its waltz beat and tinny background chimes that is inevitable with a voice like that. With Mercury, Eitzel leans into his voice’s natural melancholy to make it, and his lyrics, shine out.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
I should make a playlist called “Jazz Chords, But Not Jazz.” I can already tell you who’s going to be on it: George Harrison, Jeff Buckley, a long trail of Mac Demarco related artists, and now, American Music Club. That’s not a knock on musicians using jazz chords outside of the jazz context, but we’ve got to acknowledge that someone, one day, figured out how wonderfully jarring those fancy major sevenths and minor ninths sound over a rock beat, and then went and showed all their friends. I will stand as one musician in particular, guilty as charged. With that being said, the slightly dissonant effect of those complex harmonies over simple, minimalistic rock grooves never fails to move me. The atmosphere of the music surrounds and colors, while the bass and drums keep you awake. There’s an entire genre built around this concept, which I recently learned, is called shoegaze. I’d always connected shoegaze to math rock in my head, probably because most of the friends I know that play one dabble in the other, but there’s not really all that much complexity involved in the former genre. Shoegaze is all about feel — painting an emotional picture with those extended notes and fancy shmancy chords, while keeping the arrangements tasteful and focusing on structure over jamming. Mercury could certainly be classified as shoegaze, but there’s definitely something happening over the music, with lead singer Mark Eitzel’s voice, that harkens to some Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds influence. While technically, the two bands were contemporaries, I heard Nick Cave first, so American Music Club gets the short end of the stick in my perception of influence. All jokes aside, I found this album thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, with “I’ve Been A Mess” and “Will You Find Me?” standing as highlights. Considering that I love this type of music, but had never heard of this album or band until today, I would say that “underrated” and “underappreciated” are perfect descriptors for Mercury and American Music Club.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
Because who doesn’t experience epiphanies while singing karaoke?
I actually felt a rush of guilt when I saw Drew had put Mercury by American Music Club on the docket. Simultaneously, I thought: What an odd, silly response. I mean, part of the reason I write for OYR is to open my ears to new things and to right musical wrongs by listening to things I had previously ignored. But my ignorance of this album is somewhat pathological. Let me explain. When AMC first came to my attention, probably with the song “Rise” from 1991’s Everclear, which got them on MTV’s 120 Minutes, I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe it was the name of the band — so nerdy — or the dumb circus-themed visuals, which seemed destined for the scrap heap of history as soon as they came out of the editing suite. So, I was not a fan and was only dimly aware of Mercury when it came out two years later. But then something funny happened: I became obsessed with their next album, San Francisco, which followed a year later in 1994. I don’t even know how it began — if a friend turned me on to it or if I heard a track on the radio or in a record store — but I can say it was one of my most-listened to albums of that year. It had hot competition, too: Portishead, Beck, Nirvana, Beastie Boys, Hole, Nine Inch Nails — wow. I loved Mark Eitzel’s husky voice, which he often pushed to its limits, as he unleashed all of his hurt, love, bitterness, and regrets. I loved the rich, noirish production, with starlit guitars, rich bass, and a dynamic range that went from a whisper to a scream in sublime fashion. I drove my studio-mate crazy (sorry, Tom), singing along with depressive classics like “It’s Your Birthday” and “Wish The World Away” and bought a special box called The San Francisco Collection that contained the first single off the album and had room for the next four singles (I think I still need two of them). I even liked their cover of “California Dreaming” and I hate The Mamas And The Papas with a passion. But then… nothing. Now, understand that San Francisco was AMC’s last album for nine years, which is plenty of time for the world to completely forget you ever existed. But why — why! — didn’t my deep attachment to that album translate into a backtrack through their discography? Yes, CD’s were expensive, but surely I must have seen a copy of Everclear or Mercury or any of the other early albums, in the used bin somewhere. Certainly all of the solace and enlightenment I took from Mark Eitzel’s brilliantly awkward lyrics (“The world is held together by the wind / That blows through Gena Rowland’s hair,” etc.) was worth risking $7.99 to buy a used copy of Mercury! So, now here I am, thanks to Drew, kicking myself while reveling in that album’s lushly sad, dramatic, emotional songs, finding new favorites like “I’ve Been A Mess,” “Keep Me Around,” “Apology For An Accident,” and the stark, stunning closer, “Will You Find Me?” I’ve found you again, AMC, and I’m not letting go this time.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
American Music Club’s Mercury occupies a space that admittedly I didn’t spend a lot of time in during the ’90s. I was vaguely aware of what constituted the genre of “indie rock,” but like many I was chasing the latest noise rock, grunge, shoegaze, and even innovations in electronica and techno around the time it was released. I was aware that bands were still making a sort of mid-tempo rock and roll and Pavement crossed my radar as one of those. I was repeatedly told I ought to like them as though they represented some sort of benchmark for identifying yourself as someone with decent taste in “alternative” music. American Music Club remind me of a more emotionally evocative Pavement. While that slacker-meets-crooner songwriting style complains and moans up and down the melodic scale over reverb-drenched, shimmering guitars, and jazz-influenced drums, I am much happier to find this later in life. It’s been a long time since angst was at the core of my emotional spectrum and Mark Etzel’s gentle, sincere delivery is more about recalling relationships and situations which are relatable and fairly common. He wobbles with a sort of grace, like a tightrope walker. Making his way forward apprehensively, there’s a sense that the songs on Mercury are for their own sake. There is no attempt here to create a hit record or put forth a series of singles that might inspire radio play. There is no reliance on the catchy hook, earworm guitar riffs or even a dance-floor-friendly beat. “What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life,” arguably the most pretentious and unabashedly arty song names ever committed to a record, begins with a palatable rhythm which seems to contradict what I’ve described above. By the time you reach the 2:30 mark, the song is spiraling out of control, loses all sense of direction, and struggles to maintain some semblance of its former structure. That might sound like I am being disparaging but on the contrary, it’s one of the strengths of this record that while it maintains the tempo and quality of “easy listening,” it’s challenging enough to maintain your attention and focus.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
While Eitzel’s words often hog the spotlight, the vagrant approach to structure & melodies helped the band truly become unique & remarkable.
If you wanna just listen — to simply hear — music, then headphone records are the way to go. And few engineers make ’em as good or as immersive as Tchad Blake. I first came across his work through Pearl Jam’s Binaural. It’s their best-sounding album — it’s spacious, it’s inviting, and it’s a little creepy in its vastness. But I think that gives some extra weight to the songs. Binaural is not PJ’s best set — though it might be their most interesting one — but it is utterly listenable on a purely sonic level. Many of the touches, flourishes, tricks, whatever found on Binaural seem to be borrowed (or tested?) from Mercury: The damp thump of the snare, the textural guitar, the feathery production, the claustrophobic openness. For both albums, it’s the little details that make them special. Most importantly, though, Mark Eitzel has plenty of room to playact his thoughts and exorcise his demons and chew the scenery. His vocals are a performance in both the broadest and strictest senses of the word. And in terms of his lyrics, the little details contain some of his best lines. In particular, he’s in top form when he references, directly or not, the human face: “Your beauty is just a slap in the face,” “You saw my face fall into a well-worn groove,” “My face is a broken map,” “Your look of disgust when I touched your skin”. (OK, that last one is a bit of a stretch but still…) Musically and lyrically, Mercury has many caverns that can only be properly explored with a nice pair of headphones, which is to say: by paying attention. So if you ever needed a justification to spoil your ears, there you go.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Pardon my brevity this week; I’m sick as a dog on Easter Sunday. I’m literally struggling to keep my nose from dripping onto my keyboard as I type this. Is that descriptive enough? Splash, splash. Ironically, I noticed the obscene amount of pollen in my car the other day and thought “you know what, it’s been a really long time since I’ve been sick. In fact, I don’t think i can remember the last time I was sick.” Blessing counted. And now I’m at death’s door. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration. But I couldn’t help but chuckle at my current situation and the lyrics to “Dallas, Airports, Bodybags.” Juxtapose this to the fortunate health streak I’ve been on: “Winning streak left me high and dry / a winning streak that slowly drains from the land / I’m hanging by a thread, hanging by a thread.” By the time I got to “Apology For An Accident,” I knew that this was all just a sick joke (double entendre!): “And now like the air I’m blowing and blowing / with no hope of ever being seen.” Enjoy your health, guys. Surely I’ll be back to normal strength next week.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
A marvelous cross-section of ’90s rock styles, the beauty of Mercury lies in how it achieves this distinction with relative ease. This isn’t a slowcore band trying to sound jazzy, nor is it a punk band trying to slow things down for the hell of it. This isn’t a band cosplaying as The Birthday Party nor is it a band seeking out an emerging niche audience. This is just a band writing songs to fit their tone and emotion, without any forethought to what it “sounds” like. How else would you explain the experimental tones (“More Hopes And Dreams”), peculiar song titles (“What Godzilla Said To God When His Name Wasn’t Found In The Book Of Life“), and the ability to shift from swaying rhythms (“If I Had A Hammer“) to chaotic breakbeats (“Challenger“)? Considering the band has been difficult to define from record to record, a lot of these musical landmarks have been referenced before, with the band’s punk and post-punk mélange bleeding over into the myriad of sub-genres that gained popularity in the ’90s: dreamy shoegaze, pensive slowcore, or ill-defined indie rock. But the band’s murky sound also lends itself to other genres of the ’90s too, from grunge (“Challengers” could easily slide into some grunge classics) to even radio rock, whether you want to call it soft rock, pop rock, or even the weirdly titled “adult alternative.” Think of bands like Matchbox Twenty and Goo Goo Dolls, the latter especially coming to mind when you compare the openings of “Iris” to American Music Club’s “Johnny Mathis’ Feet.” (Full disclosure, I was already thinking about a possible Goo Goo Dolls thread after hearing “Apology For An Accident” and “Over And Done,” but then it all seemed to click in the opening of “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” so I’m sticking with it.) The difference is that “Iris” is much more polished and straight-forward, stripped of any extraneous thought in order to make it immediately memorable, whereas “Johnny Mathis’ Feet” revels in abstraction, allowing its story to come together in pieces and fragments that resonate much more strongly in the afterthought. You might scoff at the idea of a slowcore punk record that somehow invokes memories of Rob Thomas or John Rzeznik, but if you really think about it — and this record does require you to really think about it — it’s one of the album’s biggest accomplishments. While other bands were struggling to make similar sub-genres fit onto the same records, American Music Club was making a record that could catch the ear of the underground and zeitgeist at the same time, feeling at home on grimey mixtapes as well Triple A radio stations. In doing so, they became one of the most unique bands of their time, a distinction that still stands over 25 years later.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Some Feelings by Julia Nunes
Chosen By Doug Nunnally