American Music Club “California”

Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#401 in the Series) is American Music Club, California

The Ones That Got Away.

It’s a list that surely every music fan has got: the great unsung heroes, the bands or artists that you consider to be utterly brilliant but who simply do not, for whatever reasons, get the credit and recognition they so deserve. I’ve certainly got such a list and you can be damn sure that very near the top of it is this band, American Music Club.

Formed in San Francisco in 1983, A.M.C. were roughly contemporary with bands such as R.E.M. and The Replacements and like both those fine bands they went on to create some of the very best music that the decade had to offer.

They got off to a pretty slow start mind you, 1985’s debut offering The Restless Stranger really didn’t do much at all and disappeared fairly quickly. There are a couple of decent tracks on there but on the whole it probably deserved its fate. Follow up Engine (1987) was far better both in terms of the music and songwriting. This was the album which first got the band attention and it went down particularly well in the UK and the rest of Europe, British rock weekly Melody Maker were quickly on the case, offering much praise for main man Mark Eitzel’s improved lyrics and delivery. Not a surprise really, side one of the album is superb, tracks like “Outside This Bar”,” Gary’s Song” and “At My Mercy” being real standout efforts.

By this stage the band still hadn’t found their proper voice though, seemingly unsure of which direction to pursue. It didn’t help that half the band were influenced by post-punk UK acts Echo & The Bunnymen and Joy Division whilst the other half were into Country music and Neil Young.

When it came time to record the third album, they seemed to pull it all together at last, reconcile the musical differences and bring it all back home in glorious fashion. Released in October 1988 California is, simply, an utter masterpiece.

First track, “Firefly” is perfect, a great introduction. So beloved by fans that Eitzel must be sick to death of playing it by now, it sets the scene for what’s to follow with its lovelorn plea:

“you’re so pretty baby…where did you go…”

Many of the songs which come next seem to have a similar sensibility to them and a common theme, love. Lost, broken, neglected or misplaced love in all its messed up glory and debilitating power.

Soon we get to “Lonely”, Eitzel at his most scathing, a glorious put-down:

“If i have to be this lonely i may as well be alone”.

I’m sorry to have to keep throwing lyrics at you but that’s really where this record’s strength lays, the poetic imagery that Eitzel evokes and his often fierce, often softly beautiful delivery. The music is great too, someone once said it was Americana before the term existed, there’s rock, folk, gentle Country shuffles and, weaving through it all, some lovely pedal steel guitar courtesy of Bruce Kaphan.

“Blue And Grey Shirt” has to be one of the saddest songs you will ever hear, it’s apparently about an old friend who died of an AIDS-related illness, simply devastating.

Rarely do they put a foot wrong although the opening salvo of side two, “Bad Liquor”, is what can best be described as an acquired taste; it’s a mad, loud, distorted thrash which goes completely against the grain of the album as a whole. The runt of the litter. On vinyl i used to skip it, on CD it comes up on random play and I’ve grown very fond of the damn thing!

OK, we’ve not got all day, suffice to say that the rest of the album is wondrous also, a real contender for the greatest “Lost Classic” album there’s ever been. It’s been deleted for years and is now pretty hard to get hold off. Used copies can change hands for around $30; you can’t have either of mine for any amount!

A re-release seemed likely just a short while ago (apparently the drummer and producer Tom Mallon now owns the rights, it’s a long story……) but now, who knows?

Such was the underwhelming response to this album in their native land that the band’s next release, United Kingdom was only available in Europe, a disgrace. They fought back bravely though and 1991’s superb “Everclear” is considered by many fans to be their best album, it was voted Album Of The Year by Rolling Stone and Eitzel named as the best songwriter in America ! Quite an achievement. Everclear is an amazing album also, very close in quality to this one, but i feel that California just shades it, it works better as an overall cohesive piece.

Towards the end comes “Western Sky”, the albums finest moment, it may well be the greatest song that Eitzel’s ever written (and he’s written a few good ones over the years). It comes over as a message to for someone close, someone who’s lost their way a bit and found themselves broken, beaten up by life and all its shitty little twists and turns:

“i hate to see you look that way
all the beauty has left your face
such an easy thing to throw away
but it’s impossible to replace”

He seems to be telling them that he’s done all he can and it’s time for him to move on, but all is not lost. There’s light at the end of even the longest tunnel, and he leaves them with the promise of redemption:

“so please be happy baby and baby please don’t cry
even though the parade has passed us by
you can still see it shining
shining in the western sky…….”

Stunning stuff, and you owe it to yourself to become acquainted with this lost gem, it will be available again one day, if there’s any justice………

Stephen Dalrymple, Glasgow, Scotland

Track listing

All songs written by Mark Eitzel.

Side One

  1. “Firefly” (Eitzel/Kaphan) (2:49)
  2. “Somewhere” (Eitzel) (3:01)
  3. “Laughingstock” (Eitzel/Pearson) (4:17)
  4. “Lonely” (Eitzel) (2:42)
  5. “Pale Skinny Girl” (Eitzel/Pearson/Vudi) (3:33)
  6. “Blue and Grey Shirt” (Eitzel) (3:33)

Side Two

  1. “Bad Liquor” (Eitzel/Pearson/Vudi) (1:57)
  2. “Now You’re Defeated” (Eitzel) (2:28)
  3. “Jenny” (Eitzel) (2:38)
  4. “Western Sky” (Eitzel) (3:28)
  5. “Highway 5” (Eitzel/Vudi) (3:49)
  6. “Last Harbor” (Eitzel) (4:35)


American Music Club

  • Mark Eitzel – vocals/guitars
  • Dan Pearson – bass
  • Vudi – guitar/accordion
  • Tom Mallon – drums/producer/engineer


  • Bruce Kaphan – pedal steel
  • Lisa Davis – bass on “Firefly”

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Posted by Stephen Dalrymple
I was so much older then , i'm younger than that now.........

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