Tag Archives: Mark Eitzel

January 1998 – album reviews – Mark Eitzel’s ‘Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby’ (“its songs, voiced in a spare fatal music pitched between Robert Johnson and Nick Drake, increasingly illustrate a life close to an exhausted edge”

22 Jan

Mark Eitzel: 'Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby'

Mark Eitzel: ‘Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby’

It’s almost unbelievable to think that Mark Eitzel has left San Francisco. American Music Club’s former frontman seemed umbilically tied to the city where manifest destiny unravels on the edge of the continent, whose battered and crumbling communities of survivors – whores, AIDS victims, blown-out drifters slipping off the Dream – inhabited his heartwracking music, and fleshed out the nagging sense of dislocation and struggle that’s marked his life both in and out of song. But leave it he has, settling in the sharper climes of New York City.

Exchanging the Bay for Times Square seems to have lent his work an East Coast leanness. Now Eitzel’s songs exist in a flat, pressed-out space, far removed from AMC’s rich troubled orchestrations, or even from the jazz’n’torch-toned crooner feel of his ’60 Watt Silver Lining’ solo debut. Sometimes more acid is etched into a song via a bleak, distant bilous buzz or splurge of electric guitar (from former Cramp/Bad Seed Kid Congo Powers – the hollow roar of an empty belly at 4 a.m. A couple of songs are hammered home with bass and drums, courtesy of various Yo La Tengo-ists and Sonic Youth-ers. But most often it’s the man himself alone. Tumbles of bleak, dirty imagery which Eitzel’s cracked, scuffed baritone (sometimes horrified, most often seamed with the scars of painful living) releases over the tangled patterns of the acoustic guitar he fingers as if it were a crown of thorns.

Previously, in the transcendent sadness of AMC songs like Blue & Grey Shirt or Will You Find Me?, this recipe included beautiful compassionate tunes which yearned and reached towards something beyond the earthbound and betrayed. ‘Caught in a Trap…’ (which actually predates ‘West’, Eitzel’s gentler but underwhelming ’97 collaboration with Peter Buck) makes few attempts to sweeten the bitter brilliant pills of Eitzel’s words. Its songs, voiced in a spare fatal music pitched between Robert Johnson and Nick Drake, increasingly illustrate a life close to an exhausted edge.

If it isn’t quite Eitzel’s ‘Pink Moon’, it comes near enough in its cryptic fatalism – though his image of a barfly Santa Claus pursued by wolves on Xmas Lights Spin suggest it might be his Hellhound On My Trail. Eitzel’s surreal yet bitingly direct lyrics spin past in a tattered blur of clown suits, heavy air, butcher’s shops, paralysed snowmen and the inevitable cheerless bars – sort of like Jean-Paul Sartre as a battered folk singer, trapped in a junkshop haunted with the tracings of hopes and dreams.

Importantly, though, it’s not a question of self-pity. Are You the Trash addresses a hapless somebody lifted and dumped by a seductive other (“Evil wears a big smile, evil loves your mind, evil gets what it wants, evil leaves you behind…”). Yet it acknowledges our own capacity to play out our victimhood – “Even when he hurts you, well, it all seems okay. / His beauty is always beyond you / and somehow always gets in the way.” Years ago, Eitzel reminded us that “bad habits make our decisions for us.” ‘Caught In A Trap…’ deals with what happens when those habits become a way of life, as they have for the lost souls he’s sketching when he sings “most people want to inhabit their lives like ghosts and drift from room to room, / and brag about what imprisons them, and wait for the sweep of a broom.”

This time around, it’s more of a warning. On Auctioneer’s Song your heart can pull skywards like a balloon, but at the price of being as loseable, likely to find all of that lift someone else’s careless hot air, while callous smiling figures prance in to move the world on around you. Whoever’s narrating the drained Bob Mould-ish Cold Light of Day, wrapped up in ice-storm guitar, is frighteningly isolated – lurking in “the darkest part of the trees” or “five fathoms down”, determined not to hurt anybody but in constant fear of discovery. Queen of No One seems to be a portrait of a gay bar filled with scared men unable to find courage even on their own turf, as if frostbite had suddenly scarred and paralysed them at the humid peak of their Mardi Gras.

While in the past Eitzel might have railed against these little stagnations, now he’s considering them with a new eye. As prompted on the otherwise exhausted Goodbye: “Seeing eye dog on the end of its leash says ‘how can you live without trust?'” Often the best decision seems to be to close things down with as much grace and acceptance as you can. One song, with a hushed dark finger-picked melody mixing seduction with warning, sees Eitzel left behind, watching his companion travel solo on a collapsing funfair ride and concluding “If I had a gun, I would seal my fate with you… / I would give you your freedom.” Maybe it’s suicide or murder he has in mind, maybe a death pact or an escape, but you know that given the power he’s going to make some decisive gesture, simple and final.

And the need for this becomes heartbreaking in Go Away (the latest in Eitzel’s vein of harrowing songs about his doomed muse Kathleen Burns), during which Eitzel seems to be pushing with both palms and a stricken gaze, trying to tap the strength of his towering love into one last desperate attempt towards freeing his lover into an uncertain redemption: “I know you’ve got a plank to walk, I know you’ve got a kite to fly.” The knowledge that you’re going to have to strip yourself away from someone for whom you can do no more – or whom you simply hinder – is far harder than a simple thwarted love. That’s the place where everything slips out of both your grasp and your tread – as Eitzel sings “my touch just makes you draw / farther and farther / and farther away.” And it’s no wonder that the way he’s howling the title in the chorus finds him stuck on the hard place between searingly selfless compassion and blind, wounded resentment.

At least he’s seen a few ways out of the trap. On Atico 18 things have got to the point where cynicism manifests as an aimless couch-potato snake haunting the living room, but even as it grumbles in the corner, it’s lost its power. Eitzel’s already ignoring it: “the only love you’ll ever know is to look beyond the things you know.”

By Sun Smog Seahorse (which also made a showing on last year’s rare-as-hen’s-teeth, fans-only album ‘Lover’s Leap USA‘) he seems to have reached a point of peace. Squinting up throught the fog into a sky that finally seems benign in its indifference; screwed-up eyes and relinquishment, a rope that “ties it up, delivers it home.” It feels like a suicide abandoned – one which has been lost to a day’s acceptance. Redemption in the ability to let go, to blank out of it for long enough.

Mark Eitzel: ‘Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby’
Matador Records Ltd., OLE 179-2 (7 44861 01792 9)
CD/LP album
20th January 1998
Get it from: on general release.
Mark Eitzel online:
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May 1997 – album reviews – Mark Eitzel’s ‘Lovers’ Leap USA’ (“contains some of Eitzel’s best songs and some previously unseen directions for his art… a half-baked masterpiece”)

30 May

Mark Eitzel: 'Lover's Leap USA'

Mark Eitzel: ‘Lover’s Leap USA’

Culled and scraped up from Mark Eitzel‘s demo drawer in order to finance touring, ‘Lovers’ Leap USA’ is not exactly the album we’re hoping the former American Music Club frontman will make. In fact, most of it is apparently outtakes from Eitzel’s actual forthcoming album (which rejoices in the catchy, cheery title of ‘Caught in a Trap and I Can’t Back Out ‘Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby‘) plus what sounds like his final San Francisco demos (with AMC’s multi-instrumentalist Bruce Kaphan fleshing out the sound). Not always to Eitzel’s satisfaction, as he’s urged us to skip the first two “really awful” tracks. Well, he’s always been his own best publicist.

In spite of Eitzel’s deprecations and the album’s unpolished, occasionally sullen state (effectively, it’s a scrappy bootleg), ‘Lovers Leap USA’ contains some of Eitzel’s best songs and some previously unseen directions for his art, making it something of a half-baked masterpiece. Some songs – What Good is Love, The Big House, Have No Words – are little more than straight acoustic skeletons, on which Eitzel’s singing is either mesmeric or painfully flat and jumbled. Some (such as Leave Her Alone) sound more like exhausted Arab Strap trudges, with a drawerful of industrial grind muddying the atmosphere. In others, Eitzel drifts off into trip-hop atmospherics – easy- listening string loops, opiated piano touches, giant slow shadowy drums. And on the expansive feel of Lost and Lonely, Eitzel’s whispers sound uncannily like Chris Isaak, floating above the swish of passing cars and birdsong like a dawn haze.

‘Lovers Leap USA’ also shows that Eitzel remains in touch with the majestic tunes that floated or roared through American Music Club’s angst. How Will You Face Yourself in Sleep takes us back to the delicate traceries of fear that graced Gratitude Walks or Laughingstock. Red velvet curtains haunt the lyrics and the sounds of a song set in a hotel full of unspecified performers and travellers, restless “under a thin blanket, ’cause when you’re on the move you don’t need to be warm – / you pull another dark flood over your hidden form.” These people are worn down enough to see the machinery (“you can see through every plot, you know how they end… / Always said you would quit before you got fired. / Now you’re treading water, forgotten and tired…”) and trudge through their roles, only consoled by knowing which strings will pull on them.

Dream in Your Heart, with its dark burning fuzz of angry guitars, could’ve been one of AMC’s more aggressive moments, replete with classic Eitzel runaway metaphors (“the bitterness wears me like a chain, since I’m too Mark Eitzel vain for the Man of Steel I’ve become”) and the choruses which clasp frantically at elusive hopes (“I saw a dream in your heart / for a beauty beyond your eyes”). If people still sung protest songs at the enemy, you’d imagine a phalanx of indignant American feminists roaring Leave Her Alone at Pat Robertson. As it is, here we have a battle-scarred Eitzel limping defiantly across a bloodied drag of guitar and churned-up trash-noise to stick pins into a bigot. “You’re God’s little soldier, making sure his thunderbolts get thrown… / I just want to bang nails in your cross, I want to drive those nails home.” He’s never sung out with such positive pride before – “My sister never got credit for anything; / her life was just a constant second-guessing. / She doesn’t need your holy undressing, / and most of all, she doesn’t need your blessing.”

Two suspicious meditations on fame, The Big House and Nice Nice Nice, might have sprung from the bitter backwash of AMC’s brief encounter with the big time. The first, in cranky acoustic cynicism, strips the glitz from the glittering bubble at the top of the pile (“antique paintings from across the pond, chandeliers and porcelain figurines / an island in the calm of the storm, scattered meaningless shouted words and bored security guards,”), and sees Eitzel as spectator in a backstage zone “as hollow as King Tut’s womb”, munching cheerlessly on bar snacks and watching “this treadmill… moving the river of green, / …freedom slipping through the cracks.” It’s someone else in the spotlight this time, atop a fortress of speaker stacks, kidding himself he’s empowered; but Eitzel’s disgust is the scorn of a man who’s been close enough to get stained himself. “Let ’em weigh you and judge you, let ’em use you as their tool. / You give it away, you fool, you fool, you fool.”

Even more cuttingly, Nice Nice Nice deals with the artistic failure-turned-self-promoter – “This is the wall you broke your head on, / the one you’ve lied about so many times. / And now you’ll display a marvel for the ages, / a masterpiece of grace and design / with a meaning that no-one really finds.” Here mass acceptance comes with the price of knowing “you’re just like them, deep down”, but it’s impossible to know which side the alienated but notoriously anti-precious Eitzel’s really on.

There are some glimpses of a starker personal honesty. The spindly blues of What Good is Love (in which Eitzel’s clacking metronome sounds as if it’s snipping strips from his life) is an agnostic’s sleepless night, dismantling the articles of faith one by one and feeling the emptiness grow. “All my chicken-bone dreams left on a windowsill too long, / so easy to pull them apart… / And if it won’t set us free, and there’s nothing above, / then what good are we, and what good is love?”

Steve I Always Knew is Eitzel’s first open acknowledgement in song of his own bisexuality. But that’s less of a revelation than the way in which he strips himself bare in it. In the upfront world of gay pickups, he’s hard-put to swagger: “I guess all this means we’re going to sleep together – / outside I’m hard as a brick, inside I’m like a feather… / I guess in bed I was kind of a sweet nothing – / and for your money, you could’ve done much better.” Although Eitzel’s the one who’s first dumped, then denied (“You moved to New York to clean up, and came back married to a cop. / And when I saw you on the street, I could tell you didn’t want to stop,”) he ends up the strong one, able to face what his erstwhile lover recognises but can’t deal with. “You said the only way through fear is to give in, / and you were right, you were right.”

The most fascinating songs here are the ones where the borders of the problem are lost to view. In Lost and Lonely, Eitzel’s walking from dawn ’til dusk “like the ghost of a man… beyond the blessing of women and the shadow of doubt”, under “cruel summer starlight on a dark street.” The song unravels in murmuring drunken thought, a fumbling of fleeting images (“measure the life in miles forgotten”; “why hold a seance? I know you won’t call”; “who would chain the stars too heavy to walk?”) and a repeating mumble of “thought you were lonely as me.” Towards the end, Eitzel mutters a barely audible “thank you”, like a sleepwalking Fat Elvis.

It’s that particular Elvis who seems to haunt the remaining pieces, which are Eitzel’s hypnotically dissolving forays into trip hop. Like the narcotic but impenetrable lushness of Your Glass Jaw, in which strings, vibes and congas seem to be buoying up a deadweight singer “high in a bright light” who only sloughs off more of those cryptic, disconnected mumbles – “dissolve bright eyes”; “mosquito hunger, the blood of saints.” It might be the collapse of a champion, the same pulverised resistance that Scott Walker evoked on ‘Tilt’.

Pay It Back loops satellite chatter and rumbling gongs around Eitzel’s skinny strums, an irretrievably distant and uncaring brushoff from a frozen heart. “Do I owe you my soul for your heartbeat to inhabit? / Well you can have it… / Buried alive, better off dead. /… Whatever it is I owe you, I’ll pay you back.” And in Lost My Humor, Eitzel returns to double-bass’n’piano torch-song sounds, but submerges them in an obscuring post-rock drone. Likewise, his voice is a half- buried baritone whisper like gutter-trodden velvet, repeating “I lost my humor” as a cynical mantra, trailing it with clinchers from the self-mockingly spiteful (“I was bored to death by your song, and the rest of popular culture”) to the philosophical (“it means I give up any claim to being a voice for tomorrow”), to the cold (“don’t assume that they see you, don’t assume that they like you”) through to post-modern fatalism – “I’m doomed to live without – negotiate your sorrow.”

So far, so Zombie-David Byrne, the Prisoner of Vegas. But what gives this its frightening depth is the way in which, by the end, he’s trying to rouse himself. The chant has become “I lost my spirit”, and he’s casting around trying to make sense of it again “like the mirror I smashed, trying to fit it back together,” and realising what’s been lost: “I lost my spirit – someone put it in your pocket… / I lost my spirit…”

In the end, wherever Mark Eitzel goes, he’s lost. But no-one sends letters from the wilderness like he can.

Mark Eitzel: ‘Lovers Leap USA’
self-released, ME 1001 (no barcode)
CD-only album
May 1997
Get it from: (2004 update) Extremely rare and best obtained second-hand. ‘Lover’s Leap USA’ was sold exclusively by Mark Eitzel himself during his 1997 touring – only 500 copies were made and it has never been reissued.
Mark Eitzel online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Pandora Spotify Tidal Instagram Amazon Music

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