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Location: Roxbury, Massachusetts, United States

Trying to bring some light to the past while igniting the future one album and artist at a time. This was previously attempted as EXODUS IN STEREO, but this time, baby, it's for real. ;-)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

American Music Club THE RESTLESS STRANGER (Grifter) 1985

Go ahead and help yourself
If you think you can put me down
You just wanna see a king
Losing his crown
Let's see some justice done
In this dying town
Go ahead and help yourself
If you think you can force one more down

So begins The Restless Stranger, the very first album by what remains to be the truly last great American band, San Francisco's own American Music Club. Obscure even when it was released, the band's debut got lost in the shuffle when AMC became recognized for its later albums [namely Engine (1987), California (1988), and Everclear (1990)], partially because the British and European press, who so revered the group and gave them far more cred than they ever received on their home turf, never really heard the album as it was never issued overseas. A few more folks got to hear it when it made a brief re-appearance on CD when the band were signed to Warner Brothers, but it too soon disappeared. Finding a copy nowadays can be a bit harder than it once was, but though some AMC/Mark Eitzel dismiss the record as a misfire, the good stuff truly rises above the not so good and is well worth seeking out.

The Restless Stranger was released in 1985 after AMC had been around, in varying incarnations, since about 1982. The band at this time included core members Mark Eitzel (vocals/guitar), the truly incredible Vudi (guitar), and Danny Pearson (bass), along with dark star Brad Johnson (keyboards), a key figure in AMC history, and the much underappreciated Matt "Sluggo" Norelli (drums). Produced and engineered by Tom Mallon (who not only also released the album on his own Grifter records, but also would join the band not too much later and continue to produce/record the band through 1989's United Kingdom), the album at times resembles groups such as Translator or even The Motels, but that is merely part of the charm. AMC were still finding their sound at this point, and the politeness exhibited throughout most of the songs is underscored and ghosted by drunken spurts, boiling blood, and exuberant rage. Underneath the slick veneer, shall we say, lies within a most unsteady foundation. Mallon probably knew and saw this, and pushed this particular angle as far as he could.

Parts of this record displays the logical point of sound between evolving out of Eitzel's previous band the Naked Skinnies (whose one single, the impossibly rare "All My Life" b/w "This I The Beautiful Night" [which AMC would play live up until about 1985], is well worth finding and hearing) and AMC's second album Engine. The uneasiness and booze drenched tales displayed on engine aren't in full flower yet, but the evolution is startling. "Room Above The Club" opens the proceedings with a desperate sounding Eitzel singing in his straightest faced voice, yet with an air of unease and displeasure, especially on the chorus "In the room above the club/She cries herself to sleep every night/In the room above the club/Why is it so hard to treat you right?" Images of cheap booze, the wrong kind of people to be hanging out with, and bored Midwest nights abound here. This seeps into the lurching swagger of "$1,000,000 Song", a Jim Beam and Miller High Life two-step taken at half speed but with all intents and purposes intact. Sluggo drops the martial snare rolls and beats wickedly, like Levon Helm with something to prove, as Vudi beats up his guitar with its own whammy bar, oozing Market Street sleaze all the while. "I am the announcer on your favorite show/Why do you try to catch my eye?" Eitzel asks with a leer. There is…no answer to such a question. Following the blurry hangover of "Away Down My Street" (done a bit better as a live bonus track on the WB CD re-issue of Engine), comes "Mr. Lucky", and against some very insistent drumming from Sluggo, Eitzel shouts and spurts, screaming "Hey!/Here is my friend!/I want you to be really nice/'Cause he's an asshole!/Sit down and shut up!" then settles into the slurred first verse of "Mr. Lucky just got my name/Booked me on a flight somewhere…" This preceded on the album, though, by the Simple Minds meets Tom Waits lushness (in more ways than one) of "Yvonne Gets Dumped", candy coated in Johnson's synths but edged along sharply by Vudi's razor guitar.

The next few songs drift by in a haze, as if you're trying to pick yourself up off the floor of a bar after being sucker punched by a drunk with more to prove than you, but then the light shines through again with "When Your Love Is Gone". The disjointed, almost dum-dum, impressionistic lyrics don't foil the gorgeous sounds of the pretty synth washes blending nicely with Vudi and Eitzel's guitars. The kicker of course is when the song breaks down ever so often to highlight Eitzel speak singing, almost at a loss, "When your love is gone/You'll find her in everyone." This is followed by "Heavenly Smile", an older song that precursors the fucked up futuristic country blues of United Kingdom (1989), ushering in the magnificent, monolithic, unheralded, and devastatingly beautiful "Broken Glass".

Mournful keyboards fade up into heavily whammied guitars and desperate bass, all driven strongly by shotgun drums. Eitzel begins, sounding distant and detached:

With an ounce of gold
And an ounce of sand
I'll give you beautiful dreams
I'll give you beautiful dreams

The word at the end of the second line may have been "sand", but it may also have been sage, maybe even sense…Eitzel seemed to change this word every time they played it. No matter, the impact is still the same. These are the transmissions from a desperate soul:

I'll give you the future
I'll give you the past
I'll give you diamonds...

…but he doesn't even finish his thoughts. Growing more desperate throughout the song, Eitzel begins to come apart at the seems, trying to be nice and kindly, but ending up on his knees and in tears:

I'll give you…
I'll give you…
I'll give you…
For your beautiful face
For your beautiful face
I'll give you…
If you think it will do any good
I'll give you…

The pressured wind up and subsequent total emotional release within the course of a single song would become an AMC hallmark, but "Broken Glass" might have been the first place it came together in all the right ways. Simply put: brilliant.

The somber "Hold On To Your Love" winds up the album on a uplifting, though sad, note. Ambient cello and acoustic guitar back Eitzel's softly singing voice, knowing that beyond all this lies something worth living for…perhaps…

Hold on to your love
Though it's just a railing on a balcony
Hold back my tears
There must be no rain on a sunny day
Please sing for me
Keep out the clouds that sit on my shoulder

More than little reminiscent of later Eitzel songs such as "Jenny" (from California) and "The Song Of The Rats Leaving The Sinking Ship" (from Love Songs For Patriots [2004]), "Hold On To Your Love" was the other half of the AMC blueprint drawn up so earnestly on The Restless Stranger.

The Warner Brothers CD added three songs from around the same period of time. "The Restless Stranger", the unused song for which the album was named, is jaunty pogo dance of desperate measures, with Eitzel trying hard to make his point among the chaos, finally allowing himself to be heard when the song eases into a slow simmer, with bubbling synthesizer oozing just below the surface. Though "How Low" proves the truth of the accusations of Eitzel's Joy Division obsessions, the song claims its own territory through Pearson's thick and driving bass and Vudi's eerie guitar. Even the opening lyrics send a bit of a chill up the spine:

Every smile has a silver lining
Running from the dark like a forest fire
In your lost eyes every surprise falls
Just like a dying fire

The CD closes with an alternate version of the California outtake "I'm In Heaven Now" (a radically different, more acoustic version featuring different lyrics and a cello appeared on the Homestead Human Music compilation and AMC self-released comp 1984-1995). Quite possible AMC's most frightening recording, this song is the sound of a single person drowning amongst onlooking spectators and not giving a single shit about it:

I'm in heaven now
Once more I fucked it up
Once more I fucked it up
But I feel nothing

I'm in heaven now
Watch the scenery rushing by
Turn the key in the lie
And I want nothing

I'm in heaven now
Sometimes it's hard
And sometimes it's not
But either way it's nothing

The music that accompanies is auto destruction. The steady drums only hint at the insanity and possession the instruments are going through, with raucous guitars and anarchic bass pounding, bouncing, wailing, and squealing throughout. Controlled chaos to some extent, but then again, isn't that what the song is really about? Eitzel shouts himself hoarse through the end with repeated strains of "Am I drunk enough yet?"

In a word, truly devastating music…but the band would only take it even further from here.

As an aside, there is a superb live recording of AMC at Graffiti's in San Francisco in 1984 that was originally broadcast on KUSF-FM and features many versions of songs from The Restless Stranger, some in some even more awesome versions (particularly "Yvonne Gets Dumped", "Broken Glass" and "$1,000,000 Song"), plus many unreleased tunes (such as the cool "Beggar in Your World" and "Leave You In Every Way". Eitzel and especially Brad Johnson and Sluggo particularly shine on this recording, but the band on a whole just kicks some serious ass. It makes the round of bootlegs, so seek it out if you can.

These two photographs are of AMC absolutely live at Graffiti's, San Francisco in 1985, taken by Scott Alexander, a one time member of an early version of AMC. More of these cool photos from the same night (plus others) can be found at

American Music Club – The Restless Stranger (Grifter)
Originally released: 1985
Warner Brothers/Grifter CD re-issue with bonus tracks released: 1998
Produced and engineered by Tom Mallon

Side One
1. Room Above The Club
2. $1,000,000 Song
3. Away Down My Street
4. Yvonne Gets Dumped
5. Mr. Lucky
6. Point Of Desire

Side Two
1. Goodbye Reprise #54
2. Tell Yourself
3. When Your Love Is Gone
4. Heavenly Smile
5. Broken Glass
6. Hold On To Your Love

Bonus Tracks (CD re-issue only):
1. The Restless Stranger (Previously Unreleased Outtake)
2. How Low (Previously Unreleased Outtake)
3. I'm In Heaven Now (Previously Unreleased Alternate Version)

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Blogger scott said...

A great review. I really believe this album might be a contender for my favorite album of AMC. I really love how you sum up the importance of "Broken Glass".That track alongside "Point of desire", "goodbye reprise" and "away down my street" really set a mood for the listener. I wish more tracks from this album were better appreciated by AMC.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot believe that you omitted my absolute favorite, "Point of Desire". And my second favorite, "Goodbye Reprise #54" gets no mention. Glad that you enjoyed the album though, as many people tend to not.

10:05 PM  
OpenID alanbumstead said...

I'm just pleased to see such an indepth review of this album which I've only just started listening to after landing a vinyl copy earlier this year. I'll be blogging my own review sometime early next year once I felt confident enough to do it justice. Great reading.

4:30 AM  
Blogger Retrospective Foresight said...

Alan, Scott, everyone - My deepest thanks and cheers to you all for your comments on this. I had not realized how long ago I wrote this! Sadly, life factors and some other things contributed to me abandoning the blog, though I have since written for Your Flesh and the Boston Phoenix. While I was still at EQ I was working on an extensive piece on AMC that involved interviews conducted with Tom Mallon, Bruce Kaphan, Tim Mooney, and Joe Chicarelli, as well as - I was hoping - Tchad Blake, but editor left and the piece was left unfinished. I really appreciate your kind words and comments.

Tom Mallon has since identified this version of "I'm In Heaven Now" as an outtake from the live United Kingdom sessions at the Hotel Utah in SF. According to him, some of those master tapes are no longer extant.

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to see someone take this album seriously, especially when the standard critique always seems to be that Restless Stranger was never any damn good and that Everclear is the only AMC album that really matters.

I bought Restless Stranger when it was first released and thought highly of the moodier songs like Point of Desire, Goodbye, and Tell Yourself--all of which I'd heard on a college station (WNUR in Chicago). Later, I got to see the band perform a couple of shows and they were remarkably great the first time and absolutely awful the second. In some ways that inconsistency has come to represent AMC--incredible peaks accompanied by disappointing low points.

For me, Restless Stranger was never a low point. Perhaps not a home run but the good songs make up for the boring ones.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts about this album. Cheers!

2:48 AM  

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