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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Mark Eitzel

eclectic reviews and opinions

Mark Eitzel (with Sue Garner)

April 1998

Metro Cafe, Washington DC

A brief review in dodgy thumbnail photos:

sue garner Opener Sue Garner

sue garner Sue Garner playing "treated" guitar on her song "Rose Colored Glue."

mark eitzel Mark starts the set sitting down...

mark eitzel Wearing a very snazzy jacket which sadly doesn't photograph well...

mark eitzel "Five dollars at a thrift store. I was like, fuck!"

mark eitzel But the jacket is too hot to wear through an entire set.

mark eitzel ...and the mood is too rock'n'roll to sit down all night.

mark eitzel A typically intense moment.

mark eitzel ...i'm all out of stupid pithy captions...

Mark Eitzel (with The Minus 5, Tuatara, and Some Guys From Athens)

31 May 1997

Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, Georgia

What's a DC-based webzine [now Boston-area -- ed.] doing reviewing a show in Atlanta? Well, I missed the "Magnificent Seven" tour when it was in Washington, in part because I was busy networking an office til way late at night, but in part because I'd already planned to catch a plane to Atlanta to meet some longtime internet associates and see the show there. Pretty decadent, I'll freely admit, but also a whole lot of fun.

The highlight of the trip was definitely meeting and hanging out with my net chums, but the show was a whole lot of fun, too, with two sets from each of the three billed acts, lasting nearly three hours before the, um, surprise finale.

Tuatara's record, Breaking the Ethers, has yet to win me over (i'll take Rasputina's Thanks for the Ether anyday, if i'm sticking with the etheric). My basic criticism of the record was: buncha rock guys -- from bands like Luna and the Screaming Trees -- trying to play jazz/world-beat without having real jazz chops, or compelling melodies to make up for the lack of chops. Part of this is, of course, due to my biases in regard to jazz. Thelonious Monk rules my firmament, most especially his work with the young John Coltrane, and I have a fondness for intricate compositions, rather than loose tunes that sound like they were evolved in a jam session. But regardless of my personal preference, I doubted -- and still doubt -- that Tuatara would have gotten a deal for the record without the high-profile participation of the likes of Peter Buck. And my opinions of their limitations held for the live show -- only saxman Skerik really ever took much in the way of a solo, the songs' long loping grooves were seriously repetitive, and high-level comping skills were just not on display -- Buck, in particular, often looked positively lost.

On the other hand, this was tempered quite a bit by the fact that everybody on the stage looked like they were having a good time, always a major plus for me. Most folks got to play multi-instrumentalist, too, with a turn at percussion taken by almost everybody -- even Buck, debuting on vibes. Lots of people seemed very impressed by Skerik -- for what it's worth, I thought he was adequate, but I've seen plenty of no-name local artists blow just about as well.

That Buck gets around -- in fact, he got to stay on stage almost all night, since he was in all three -- four -- bands that played. One of these was (ex?) Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey's (pronounced like Cap'n Kirk's doctor) me-and-whoever else outfit, the Minus 5. I liked them a lot. Crunchy and tuneful, and anyone who looks as much like Ian Hunter as McCaughey does is jake wit' me.

Peter Buck has also lent his talents to former-American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel's new solo record, West. A lot of Eitzel's devoted fans have called the record a sell out; I think that's patently ridiculous. It's not any sonically slicker, for god's sake, than some of the AMC stuff, or for that matter, than his deceptively pleasant-sounding solo debut, 60 Watt Silver Lining. And it's lyrically as uncompromising as ever, the irony in "Free From Harm" is palpable, the refrain of "Live or Die" claims that "No one cares if I..." and "Three Inches of Wall" is pretty wrenching if you listen to it right. Sell-out, huh? Whatever.

This was my first time seing Mr. Eitzel; I'd heard that he drinks a lot (true) and is mercurial enough that his live performances vary widely in quality. I was impressed. He was a lot sexier than I thought he'd be -- there was something really compelling and sensual about the way he moved.

Before the show started, the crowd was humming with the news that three quarters of R.E.M. -- that'd be Buck, naturally, Mike Mills, and frontman Michael Stipe -- were backstage, and with rumours that R.E.M. were going to play. Sure enough, the night finished off with Eitzel lending backing vocals to four songs from the Athens lads -- their own "New Test Leper" and an eclectic trio of covers -- Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," Iggy Pop's "The Passenger," and Suicide's "Ghost Rider." I had mixed feelings about it. It's almost certainly the last time I'll be close enough to R.E.M. to spit on them (not that I took the opportunity, mind), which was cool, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves. Still, they did steal everybody else's thunder a little bit, and the band doesn't mean to me what it once did. I think I like them a little less the more competent they get.

Mark Eitzel

60 Watt Silver Lining

(Warner Bros, 1996)

I'm so far behind the curve on this solo (sorta, since it features band members Bruce Kaplan and Pearson) album from the ex-American Music Club frontman that its follow-up has already been recorded, but i figure if I get even one like-minded person to go buy this record, I will have done a good work.

I was even tempted to give this record an "A" grade; i'm holding back basically 'cause the emotional range is a little narrow, not all the material lives up to the peaks, and I can see how this album wouldn't appeal to everybody -- but it sure appeals to me. [note:Pathetic Caverns used a letter grade scale at the time this review was originally written; 60 Watt Silver Lining received a B+. -- ed.]

I'm not lately a great fan of the tribute album -- there've been an awful lot of lame ones -- but i think the Mark Eitzel tribute will be one to really stay away from. Not because the man doesn't deserve one -- he's a better songwriter than many who already have them -- but because so much of what makes music effective is in his vocal delivery, which pushes the term "world-weary" to new, er, depths.

Consider (from "When My Plane Finally Goes Down"):

When my plane finally goes down
I hope it falls into the sea
And the cold and the hard love of the tides
Will finally make sense to me
And your love
Is all I'll have to take with me

I can't imagine other noteworthy gloom merchants, like, say, Morrissey or the Cure's Robert Smith singing those words without either seeming maudlin, or with a touch of mocking self-irony, or more likely, both. Even Swans-man Gira or Joy Division suicide-victim Ian Curtis has, or had, a more weighty, portentous delivery. Eitzel sings it haggard and hushed like he honestly means it -- like it was poured out of the bottom of a fifth of cheap scotch.

The arrangements have a low-key pop-jazz sort of feel -- I almost wonder if the occasionally audible acoustic guitars were left off the credits to heighten this impression -- that occasionally approaches slickness. This gives the record a kind of kick that's substantially different from the more rock-oriented AMC output -- to paraphrase my friend Dorothy, "It's as if you're listening to Lloyd Cole or something, then you hear a line like 'Kent worked at Spec's since 1970 -- right after Haight St. finally choked on its own vomit,'" (from "Some Bartenders Have the Gift of Pardon") which winds up sounding even more barbed, popping up as it does in such an unexpected musical context.

Since one my criticisms of the record is that Eitzel's range is a little limited, I do want to point out that a couple of the best moments here break up the pattern a little bit. I'm given to understand the the longtime serious fanbase, or at least the internet contignent thereof, doesn't care much for "Cleopatra Jones," and I'll be damned if I know why (well, I'll be damned anyway, so I don't know that it matters). But it's wonderful -- a tribute to actress Tamara Dobson, who played the ass-kicking blaxploitation heroine Cleopatra Jones in a pair of 70's flicks, that is by turns savage, witty, and tender. How anyone can resist an opening line like "The people I was with said you were nothing but a fag hag and a dope fiend" is beyond me.

Also keen as all-get-out is "Southend on Sea" in which Eitzel mixes near Dylanesque torrents of words like:

a defeated army and no wind to blow away the smell of surrender
there was fifties nostalgia and horrifying Flintstone characters
with typically sardonic observations like "you said to me, 'you're from California, you're as dumb as can be'" with a seriously funky bass line, propulsive piano and some wicked, wicked horn charts.

Hell, I think I'll put the disc on again right now. Pass the hemlock, wouldja?


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