Candy Ass (Cooking Vinyl)
~reviewed by Stuart Moses
Mark Eitzel is a contrary soul and possibly his own worst enemy. Both as lead singer of US-based miserablists and a solo singer he does himself no favours. As a punk – in ethics rather than music style – and a rebel he is not prepared to make compromises. While this is generally something to be applauded in an artist it does mean that more is demanded of the listener. Take for example the title of this album. It’s unlikely that many Eitzel obsessives (they are never just fans) are going to ask for a copy of this album as a birthday present, but you can imagine many parents or partners going into the local record shop and leaving with something with a less embarrassing name. The press release for this album helpfully explains that ‘candy ass’ is a redneck term for ‘a wimp or spineless person’ then goes on to say that the naming of the album is part of Eitzel’s ‘self deprecation’.
If the title wasn’t bad enough then the first song is about Mark’s rat. Though not without precedent, the ode to a pet is rarely a flattering genre. Either for the pet or the raconteur. I’m beginning to have second thoughts as “My Pet Rat St Michael” starts and I’m a moderately dedicated fan. I wonder how many casual listeners would have given up before they get to this point. If they don’t overlook these surface eccentricities then they’ll be missing out, but there is only so much you can ask of people when there is so much music on offer nowadays. “My Pet Rat St Michael” is classic Eitzel. An acoustic guitar, full of melancholy ramblings, with bittersweet lyrics detailing the depression the titular creature feels, despite his owner’s attempts to cheer him up: “I play him Mariah Carey - so there’s butterflies and rainbows in the air!” Yet for all the wry humour: “he would hang himself except he already chewed through his rope” I can’t help feel that just as pets are supposed to resemble their owners, that it is really the owner who is: “a bit of a class clown [who] laughs with people who always laugh him down.” The recurring motif of ‘the party’s over’ is not a new one for Eitzel, however this is the first time he’s turned his attention to the animal kingdom.
So things start well. Unfortunately “Cotton Candy Tenth Power” is an instrumental cacophony without merit. If designed to create fear and paranoia in the listener then it succeeds. I can admire the refusal to give the listener an easy ride, without actually feeling the need to thank anyone for it. When I learn that there are many instrumental tracks on this album destined to be part of a film soundtrack things begin to fall into place. It’s seems a strange idea to mix such songs with your more traditional style, yet I imagine that Eitzel is a man who likes to break the rules.
We’re back on more pleasant ground for “Make Sure They Hear” though there’s still a harsh synthesised backing. Meanwhile on “Sleeping Beauty” Eitzel returns with his acoustic guitar. I wonder if he is aware that this is the sort of song that has made American Music Club so loved? Does he really want to make more atonal music, but is aware than he doesn’t want to lose his fans entirely? It hardly fits with the rebellious persona I have painted for him so far. “A Loving Tribute To My City” is another instrumental, though a more intriguing and less painful one than “Cotton Candy Tenth Power”.
There are echoes of The Blue Nile during “Homeland Pastoral”. It’s not classic Eitzel, though “the storm is coming it’s time for us to be strong” has an unexpected and unplanned resonance. Around the four minute mark the maelstrom gathers pace creating an ominous feeling through the use of atonal electronic effects. It’s around this point in the album that realise I’m a fan of Mark Eitzel in the context of American Music Club. Surrounded by musicians he is without peer, yet surrounded by computers he is a more challenging listen. I can admire the bizarre fanfare a minute and a half into “Green Eyes”, but it’s not something I would listen to for pleasure. “Cobh” and “I Am Fassbinder” are both discordant soundtracks in style, conjuring images of Tangerine Dream.
Eitzel’s fascination with animals and bad music gets an unexpected reprise in “Song of the Mole.” It’s a dirge, but few dirges mention 80s-synth stars Hall and Oates and employ biblical imagery, so it has got a certain rarity value. Halfway through the song the electronics take over and we are treated to wails of distortion. Things are brought to a close by the instrumental “Guitar Lover” which is full of electronic burbling in the style of Four Tet or Aphex Twin.
There were times when American Music Club and Eitzel seemed destined to break into the mainstream. Beloved by the UK press they have always received the critical acclaim, but never translated that into sales and become the new R.E.M. (though Eitzel has done a solo album with Peter Buck). Some of the blame must lie with the band and their refusal to compromise. What makes them so loved by a small group of people, inevitably means they were not appetising for the masses. I think the chance of widespread acclaim has probably passed, but maybe Eitzel is more suited to the fringes, where he is free to do what he wants without diluting his muse.
As a solo artist Eitzel is widely variable and this album is far from his most bizarre, (that was An Ugly American, in which American Music songs were reinterpreted by traditional Greek musicians) or depressing tuneless cover versions (Music for Courage and Confidence). If you want to try some Eitzel for the first time I’d recommend Songs of Love (Live) as his defining moment. When Eitzel is surrounded by musicians he touches something in my heart. When he utilises electronics he fails to set off fireworks in my head. Like this album Eitzel is a confusing soul, who is sometimes difficult to love, but it is worth making an effort because there are true diamonds hidden in the dirt.