Redemption Songs: AMC San Francisco Review, HP, 1994

In 1994, I did my J1 summer on the East Coast, between Cape Cod and Annapolis. I had started for Hot Press in spring of 1993 and my first piece was a review of American Music Club’s Mercury. I had everything by them by then. They were the band I’d gotten deepest into, and maybe still are.
In September, I persuaded two friends, Brian and Paul, to acccompany me on a Greyhound trip across America so that I could buy the new AMC album, called San Francisco, in San Francisco, their home city. It made sense to me, as pilgrimages can. (I told Kristin Hersh about this recently and she said “That doesn’t make ANY sense, but it’s still wicked cool”, which I accepted.)
I first asked a record megastore store assistant who had no idea who I was asking for (“you’re looking for American music?” ). But we tracked it down in a Rollercoaster-type emporium. I taped it in a house acrosss the Golden Gate Bridge, and I winged my review on a three-day, non-stop, cumulatively pungent journey back to Baltimore.
I think the cross-continent trips—Baltimore to New Orleans, Memphis, Beale St, Sun Studios, Graceland and the Grand Canyon, on to San Francisco and backmay deserve their own post but as of now I just found this on the HP archive and hadn’t read it in nearly thirty years.
I’m surprised by some of it like the multiple opening question marks and the references to Mark Eitzel getting “laid”. I’m not thrilled about a reference to vicarious suicidal depression. I guess I was twenty and had *not a breeze*. Still. My 48-year old self, although head-shaking disdainfully at this jabbering, agrees that AMC had made, was continuing to make, “the most heartbreakingly gorgeous pop the world will ever know” and that the masterpiece and centrepiece was ‘What Holds The World Together’, which it still is.
In September 94, a fine new writer in HP, Nick Kelly, had already reviewed the album before I got back and dumped my hand-written stained scrawl on the editorial desk. HP showed him my piece and said, Nick, you’re entitled to publish yours as we commissoned youbut what do you think? With kindness that I would later learn is his core characteristic, Nick said: use Niall’s. He gets Eitzel more than I do and he seems to really care. I was so grateful. Closest of friends every since. He read Yes at my wedding.

AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB: “San Francisco” (Virgin)

Nobody me there’d be days like these. Jacko and Lisa-Marie? OJ?? Waco, Switzerland??? A good-humoured record from American Music Club???? Strange days indeed.

San Francisco is AMC’s day in the sun. And the sun has got his hat on. It is the most joyful record so far to spring from their ten-year mission to create the most heartbreakingly gorgeous pop the world will ever know, so, don’t search too strenuously for stereotypical sorrow. If it’s not gaping at you, it’s not there.

San Francisco is different, almost revolutionary, simply because the love songs here are written by a Mark Eitzel who is at long last loved (or, if you prefer, at long last laid), unlike all his other records, which were, it seems to me, written by someone who loved desperately, constantly and always, always unrequitedly.

‘Fearless’ sets the tone. The finest redemption song since Marley’s, it starts with Mark wheezing (in a distinctly un-fearless manner). “Lost again, am I lost again?” and ends with his coming to the happy conclusion that he is, in fact, “Saved again…”, at which point everyone who worried for his mental health circa Mercury clinks cocktail glasses in congratulations, and cheesy grins abound.

Me, Eitzel, Nick Kelly, and the late George Byrne. Post-gig, Whelan’s, 1997. Pic by Lorraine Freeney.

Real giddiness doesn’t set in, though, until ‘Can You Help Me?’ Here Eitzel sounds positively carefree as he informs a lover that “my old friend rigor mortis starts to breathe in my face,” but that if the lover in question helps him (i.e. lays him), which it sounds like she will, then “… We’ll turn our backs on what the world has in store/And we’ll twist the light so that it always shines down on us/And wait together for the touch of something more.”

It’s the sound of a human being being rejuvenated, and it is quite enrapturing, as is the playful ‘How Many Six Packs Does It Take To Screw In A Light’, and the masterpiece and centrepiece ‘What Holds The World Together’, which I won’t even attempt to describe, except to say that when its gently fluttering intro arrives, two butterflies tie knots in my stomach.

Clearly, all this unprecedented good cheer makes San Francisco nigh-on impossible to mope successfully to, but that’s OK. Mark Eitzel has publicly flayed himself often enough already, and if we ever need some vicarious suicidal depression (not that that’s something you actually need, in the strictest sense of the word, too often), we’ll always have California (buy it, please).

Sadness and some bitter narcissism does raise up its weary head, though, in what turn out to be the least accomplished songs of this bunch. The guitar atmospherics of ‘The Revolving Door’ (“ … I’m stuck in it, my love …”) remind me too much of The Police’s chillingly awful 1986 Big Music version of ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ to allow me to enjoy properly one of Eitzel’s most yearning vocals. Also, ‘I’ll Be Gone’ (one of a piffling two songs about death on the album, versus Mercury’s thirteen) is a little bombastic. Damning or what?

These two failings take away considerably from San Francisco, as they are maybe the only two AMC songs since the debut The Restless Stranger that you could conceivably want to ever skip over. Which, I suppose, makes this their least accomplished record since the debut, or before. Needless to say, the ten triumphs make it album of the year, or so near as to make sweet sod all difference. Nothing compares.

Niall Crumlish 11/12.

2 responses to “Redemption Songs: AMC San Francisco Review, HP, 1994”

  1. […] this was a fantastic record and unexpectedly so. In 1994, I’d been in San Francisco making a pilgrimage to AMC sites and ignoring RHP sites like Grace Cathedral Park. Didn’t care, but this record nearly ten […]

  2. […] a couple of close friendships—we were close enough to be on a cross-country Eitzel pilgrimage to San Francisco and there were voices raised—but we made up in Sun Studios Memphis later that same day over a […]

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