If you’ve ever followed a cult band that managed to stay relatively obscure, you will appreciate the dilemma that the American Music Club (AMC) faced with the release of Mercury, their 6th album. After establishing themselves as the darlings of the alt rock press with Everclear and a string of accomplished releases before it, AMC was poised to be the next big thing with a major label debut.
While they never stormed the pop charts or any chart for that matter beyond the then low buck alternative and college ones, AMC turned out one of their better if not darkest albums. Just when they had the opportunity to cash in on their indie street cred, they stayed true to their creative vision (at the cost of being on American Bandstand or even MTV!). There was even an elusive VHS tape release featuring interviews with the band and facts about the making of the album (now easily accessible on YouTube).
Mitchel Froom, who was at the time an up and coming artist/producer had worked with people like Peter Case and Elvis Costello brought a quirky eclectic flavor to the already off beat sensibility embodied in the band’s lead vocalist Mark Eitzel.
The result was a dark, gloomy and oftentimes funny collection of songs that in the end could be described as beautiful sadness. That theme was a common one for AMC and Mercury pushes the concept forward with almost suicide inducing tracks like “Gratitude Walks” and the hauntingly confessional and personal favorite “I’ve Been a Mess”.
Of course with AMC it’s not always about sadness. Sly humor was just as big a component with songs like ” Johnny Mathis’ Feet”. The song was one of the few tracks to have a proper music video. The element of camp and irony made that the most enduring song on Mercury. Even Johnny Mathis himself is said to have approved (unsubstantiated).
When Mercury was not being funny (as it is throughout oddly enough), it did have the veneer of being upbeat on occasion. Although one of the albums most upbeat radio friendly songs “Over and Done” moves along with bells as percussion, it still casts a element of gloom. Tempered gloom after all is a big part of AMC.
The arrangement of simple drum, keyboard and acoustic guitars that the band is known for is at it’s best here – placing emphasis as always on the lyrics. New electronic elements are introduced (rather abruptly) on tracks like “Hopes and Dreams” which happens to be about 2 and a half minutes of electronic tones and pulses.
The displaced sounds only heighten the eccentric reputation of Mercury (while arguably not adding much artistically). It would lead to more electronics in AMC’s work, but in a more subtle form of keyboard elements.