Wednesday 30 September 2009

Take Courage

I spoke to Mark Eitzel last night. When it comes to Eitzel and American Music Club, I’m a stark-eyed zealot, so this is a fine opportunity to revisit a piece I wrote for the Guardian last year. He has a new album out next month, called Klamath. It’s beautiful, of course. You can get it here.

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I can remember vividly when I fell in love with Mark Eitzel. It was in a small basement room, during my first term at university, and I was 18. In the interests of legal clarity, I should point out that he wasn’t actually there. On a hunch I’d bought Songs Of Love, his busman’s holiday from American Music Club, from the original Fopp on Glasgow’s Byres Road. A solo acoustic record recorded live at the Borderline in 1991, slowly - actually rather quickly - it dawned on me that these intensely beautiful songs sung by this big, wounded, vulnerable voice were something very special indeed.

Eitzel is often dismissed as a miserablist. In fact, I notice he’s recently been painted as some kind of ‘emo uncle’, probably by the same people who can only describe Leonard Cohen’s songs as wrist-slitting music. Well, the misery escaped me then and escapes me now. In common with Cohen, I find Eitzel’s music oddly ecstatic and life-affirming: very, very funny; desperately sad; slightly seedy; hopelessly romantic; soft and luxurious; theatrical, camp and utterly self-absorbed. If the world had its head screwed on, he’d be playing Vegas. He certainly knocks Rufus Wainwright into a cocked hat.

Back in 1991 I listened to Songs Of Love every day; far too much for my own good, probably. I still know every last note by heart: every sobbed ‘sorry’, ‘please be happy, baby’ and apologetic guffaw when he fluffs a guitar line. It is one of the few records that never leave me; AMC’s Everclear, their best, is another. My obsession soon lead me to obscure 7-inches called things like "Take Courage: On the Emblematic Use of Jewellery as a Metaphor for the Dissolution of Our Hopes and Dreams" (Sufjan Stevens eat your heart out), until finally a kindly Karl Wallinger look-a-like taped me AMC’s impossible-to-find first album, in return for buying the blank C90 cassette at his record shop. I’m not sure this kind of thing happens anymore.

After a half-hearted tilt at surfing the grunge wave, AMC split in 1994. Eitzel made a number of solo records, including the wonderful 60 Watt Silver Lining, before reforming the band with dignity in 2004. I kept in touch sporadically during that time, mostly via gigs. Watching Eitzel perform is rarely a comfortable experience. The first time I saw him, with AMC, he drank a pint of whisky and came on for the encore with a slice of processed ham stuck to his forehead. Then he screamed at the sound man, threw his microphone away, and perched on the edge of the stage to play "Last Harbour" without amplification. Sublime. Ridiculous. The last time, he was alone in a tiny Edinburgh club and opened with a spellbinding version of Joy Division’s "Heart And Soul".

If you are in Europe and the UK, over the next 5-6 weeks Eitzel will be at a criminally small venue somewhere near you. You should go. No, you must go. Songs Of Love, Everclear, California et al are still available. You should buy them. The fact that this genius is packing his own CDs and sending them out, crossing his fingers that he sells 500 copies to cover costs and FedEx bills, is a shame. He should be celebrated as a bruised and bloodied love poet who plumbs the very depths and scales the very heights of the human condition. Here's one of the reasons why:

Monday 21 September 2009

Good Gaga

"Glance casually in Lady Gaga’s direction and she could easily pass for yet another synthetic pop puppet with a propensity for grating therapy speak – “inspired”, “intense”, “blessed” – and a rather grim determination to succeed at any cost. However, beneath the ruthlessly drilled dance routines and the chilly, robotic electro-pop there are all sorts of interesting things going on. She can belt ’em out like a true diva, play piano like a demon and write a truly cracking tune. She has some of Streisand’s imperiousness, a healthy dose of Freddie Mercury’s showmanship, a pinch of Bette Midler’s bathhouse cabaret shtick and the young Madonna’s sass and chutzpah in spades."

Read my encounter with 2009’s best pop star, in which she talks sex, cocaine, subversion and, em, Rilke, here.

Friday 18 September 2009

My Word

I interview Shane Meadows and Paddy Considine in the new issue of The Word, which features the Duke himself on the cover. As befits a session with two old muckers from the East Midlands, it’s a knockabout affair, full of sly digs, in-jokes, a little wisdom and highly imaginative swearing. A bit like Meadows' films, in fact.

I also talk to the gentlemanly Neil Hannon about his 5 top singing tips (if you subscribe to the mag you get a free copy of The Duckworth Lewis Method, the wonderful eponymous album by Hannon’s side-project; and I speak as a man who always slightly despised The Divine Comedy - this, however, is brilliant)

I also review a strange old slice of 1969 retro-porn by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. Phew, lummy etc.

The Obituary Mambo

Just been listening to Tom Waits' "Swordfishtrombones", the song from the album of the same name, and once again the phrase "he's doin' the Obituary Mambo" leapt out at me. Has there ever been another song in which the information that someone has died is communicated with such disreputable, poetic relish?

There must be some other truly unforgettable evocations along similar lines. I always liked, 'He's away down the crow road', which of course Iain Banks used as a title for his - best - novel. (I used to live just off the Crow Road, btw, and I almost never felt properly dead. Just drunk, depressed and on a permanent come-down mostly).

Any better ideas than the Obituary Mambo? Best effort wins a very dinky, highly limited edition CD-style booklet featuring the '40 Greatest Death Songs' chapter from I Shot A Man In Reno, with a specially written new (well, it was new 18 months ago) introduction by me. Oh yes.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Death Disco

In keeping with the original theme of this blog (to highlight great death songs), and in honour of the - at least partial - reunion of Public Image Ltd., and also in fond memory of the days when this kind of thing used to pop up on Top of the Pops with electrifying regularity, here's PiL's "Death Disco".

Inexplicably, I didn't write about it in Reno. What was I thinking?

Sunday 6 September 2009

Gaga Observed

“My father is from New Jersey and he was a huge Springsteen fan. So I'm a big fan, too. “Thunder Road” is our song. I've always loved this record, it's like a little movie: "The screen door slams, and Mary's dress sways ... " My father used to cry, dance with me, and then say, ‘When you get married and you drive off in a Cadillac, I'm going to run after you'.”

I talk to Lady GaGa in this month’s Observer Music Monthly about six records that have played a formative role in her life to date: the fact that one of them is her own track, "Just Dance", is just one of the reasons I like her very much. She's smart, funny and might well be the best pop star we've had for well over a decade. Much more soon on that.

Elsewhere in the issue you can read my review of the rip-snorting new Nick Cave novel and the new/old Prefab Sprout album, Let’s Change the World With Music, a beautiful record for which I truly wish every success in the world. Oh, and ten dodgy docs. Enjoy.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Bunny Boy

The new Nick Cave novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, is a bit of a hoot. I can’t say much more because I’ve reviewed it in the forthcoming issue of the Observer Music Monthly, but it’s both sufficiently Cave-esque – death, the devil, oodles of filthy sex – to conform to expectations, and yet also manages to take some interesting detours along the way, keeping the emotional frame of reference broad and at times surprisingly tender. That said, it's much more Grinderman than The Boatman's Call - and you'll never look at Avril Lavigne in quite the same way ever again.

There is a good article here which looks at Cave the wordsmith of both prose and song, and to which I make a brief, modest and, as far as I can tell, entirely uneccesary contribution.