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Mark Eitzel has made a career out of bad decisions. Whether it’s the crummy guy at the bar who broke his heart and ended up in one of his songs or the hired-gun producer who botched that song by obscuring it in a studio haze, Eitzel’s mistakes are inextricably wound into his art. I’ve listened through Eitzel’s artistic transgressions as a longtime fan of his old band, American Music Club, and patience has usually paid off with a diamond. But Eitzel’s latest error is mere coal: On West, Eitzel collaborates with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, a man who, to paraphrase Tiger Woods, hasn’t been playing with his “A” game for years.
Eitzel and Buck convened at the former’s San Francisco home last October, where they wrote 11 songs in three days. And they act as if this is a good thing. “I never worked so fast in my life,” says Buck in the press release. “I’d be playing a chord pattern for Mark, and before I even got through it once he’d be singing along. We’d have written and recorded a song in half an hour. It got to the point where I’d throw him the weirdest shit I could think of, but he would always adapt.” If West is Buck’s idea of weird shit, or the wacky stuff he can’t play in his regular gig, R.E.M.’s next album should sound like Erasure.
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Buck wrote the bulk of West’s music, and from the sound of it, the guitarist was on automatic. Buck’s somnambulant strumming and workmanlike chord changes are the antithesis of Eitzel’s customary guitar progressions, which shift and play off his vocals. Because Buck writes music for others to sing over, he’s content to strum through a measure and seems to consider nuance a nuisance. There are two straight-ahead, uptempo poppers on West, “Free of Harm” and the single “In Your Life,” a track Buck demoed for R.E.M., but both sound mechanical. I would love to
e-bow Buck a letter and ask what other Stipe leftovers he fed Eitzel. My guesses are the dank ballads “Helium,” “Stunned and Frozen,” “Then It Really Happens,” and “Old Photographs,” all of which stick to Buck’s molasses fingers, forcing Eitzel to work that much harder as a singer. The only slo-mo songs that feel as if Eitzel isn’t straining to fill space are “Lower Eastside Tourist,” about a guy who moved to New York and ended up ODing on heroin, and “Fresh Screwdriver,” which is the best example of West’s narrative concerns, which are typical Eitzel: Bars are churches, the patrons are its saints, and the singer’s the loser who’s too drunk to pray. But more time would have helped Eitzel clear out some of his lyrical clichés, or at least invert them as he often does. Instead, he sings banal words like, “If you have to ask/You’ll never know” with the same deep, impassioned moan he has used on A.M.C. classics like Mercury’s “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” Eitzel’s most sublime song of self-abuse, wherein he offers to lay all his tunes at the showman’s feet if the silky crooner shows him how to be a true entertainer, and “Western Sky,” which mourns Eitzel’s friends who have died of AIDS.
Eitzel has always had problems finding a decent backing band. Live, A.M.C. often turned his tunes into bar-rock blues, admittedly a form to which Eitzel’s compositions easily lend themselves. But after Eitzel’s first post-A.M.C. record, last year’s 60 Watt Silver Lining, it was obvious how integral the group was to his work. Even though 60 Watt led off with a wonderful version of “No Easy Way Down,” a Goffin-King number most closely associated with Dusty Springfield, it was all downhill from there; even Eitzel thought the album too MOR. Though the songs were there, they were played and produced all wrong. The proof was when Eitzel performed a few acoustic versions on NPR’s Fresh Air; they sounded like some of the best he’d written in five years. (With some recorded exceptions, Eitzel seems to be at his best when he’s alone with his guitar, as on Songs of Love, a live import from 1991 that Warner plans to reissue later this year.)
The folks Buck brought in to play on West are from his hometown stable of Seattle flunkies, including auxiliary R.E.M.er Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus Five) and Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees, Mad Season). Even Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready lends a hand on guitar on one track. I can safely say that Eitzel has continued his tradition of picking strange bedfellows after witnessing his show at the 9:30 Club last week; the touring edition of Eitzel’s group included Buck, McCaughey, Martin, Luna’s Justin Harwood, and a couple of other guys with bad haircuts. Eitzel played only songs from West and 60 Watt, with Buck’s battalion of bums bashing away like the most expensive bar band this side of the Asbury Jukes. (Full disclosure: I only witnessed half of Eitzel’s set, because it was interspersed with sets from two other Buckified bands, Tuatara and the Minus Five, both of whom I intended to miss by arriving late. The stuff I did see was more than enough to convince me that my time was well spent elsewhere.)
Eitzel’s last song was an outstanding solo acoustic rendition of “Western Sky.” It’s a song he’s sung for 10 years, but he spit the words out as if he wrote them last week. When Eitzel finished, he looked drained and dizzy as he walked away from the mike. After stumbling to the wings of stage left, Eitzel realized he was heading toward the wrong dressing room, blunder and triumph mingling until the end.CP