California – American Music Club (1988)

California CD cover art
California CD cover art

RECOMMENDI’ve gone on and on about The American Music Club (AMC) here because they are one of my favorite bands. When they emerged in the mid ’80s few if any bands were mixing the sounds of cowboy rock, country and punk like they were. A bit of the blues and later ambient flourishes would come, but before all of that the first stage of AMC’s evolution could warm the saddened heart of any slowcore fan. That sound did not evolve completely until the band’s third album California.

California is AMC’s early near masterpiece. Emotionally, it’s like a wet blanket. Warm and oddly comforting, despite being heavy. Mark Eitzel, lead singer, writer, composer (and sometimes sad drunken clown) polished his writing skills and was able to squeeze tremendous depth and emotion out of sparse compositions like “Laughing Stock” and “Blue and Grey Shirt” a song about a friend dying of AIDS.

By this time the band’s classic configuration of Vudi on guitar, Dan Pearson on bass and Bruce Kaphan on steel guitar was just starting to get their sonic signature in place. A revolving cast of other musicians would come and go, most notably drummers.

Musical elements like the big drums on “Pale Skinny Girl” and the rich textures from pedal steel guitars on “Firefly” would also become band trademarks. The sarcastic wit and humor blanketed by sorrow from Eitzel’s writing would also get its mature debut on California.

About the only element that seemed out-of-place was punk rock experiment “Bad Liquor”, a song that sounded like it could have been written for Utopia.

California would set the template for American Music Club’s sound for the next few years. In many ways it feels like a debut because it’s considerably polished and refined musically and lyrically compared to the first two releases. Despite the refinements, California was never confused for a slick sounding major label release. It’s also more commonly available then Restless Stranger or Engine, although tracking it down will require some work.

California is drum, bass and strings based melancholy at its stripped down gut wrenching best. Even after a modest catalog of critically acclaimed albums, California  remains a fan favorite for good reason. The AMC formula that made the band one of the ’90s most critically acclaimed acts got its start here.

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