Here’s a back story to an album you won’t have heard before: Mark Eitzel’s friend won the lottery, and decided to invest some of the windfall in funding the former American Music Club frontman’s recording sessions with renowned producer Sheldon Gomberg (Rickie Lee Jones, Ron Sexsmith).
Then again, if anyone deserves a bout of good luck, it’s Mark Eitzel. The 53-year old songwriter should have been huge. Contemporaries and kindred spirits of R.E.M., American Music Club were tipped success on a similar scale to the Athens, Georgia quartet back in the early ’90s. Despite albums as strong as Mercury (1993), fame and fortune never materialised. By now, Eitzel could be a dictionary definition of a cult hero: critically acclaimed, revered by the few in the know, roundly ignored by the masses.
Don’t Be a Stranger proves how unjust this situation is. Eitzel’s not had an easy ride since 2009′s beautiful, hugely underrated Klamath. Last May, he suffered a serious heart attack that put him out of circulation for months. Earlier this year, American Music Club drummer Tim Mooney passed away, putting an end to the eventful career of the San Francisco band who had reunited for occasional albums and shows in 2004. Considering this, you might expect a bona fide downer of an album, on par with the most pain-blasted moments of the never-entirely-cheery AMC. Although sadness, regret and a sense of life’s chances floating by, always tantalisingly out of reach, permeate these tracks, the slow-burning Don’t Be a Stranger is enriched with enough wry humour, life-affirming beauty and arresting warmth to keep total gloom at bay.
The lottery-winning friend’s generosity pays off: Don’t Be a Stranger is full of sumptuous, understated detail – low-key backing vocals, humming organs, swooning strings, ambience-boosting blasts of electric guitar – that rewards repeated listens. Not that this material requires any sugar-coating to convince. The opener ‘I Love You But You’re Dead‘ is a strikingly vivid account of a night in a beer-marinated rock hole, populated by characters with names like Lead Pipe, whose life has unravelled to the point where “beauty brought what was left of him to the edge of despair”. The hypnotic, string-soaked ‘The Bill Is Due’ is a musical tribute to Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left – one of Eitzel’s blueprints for this record – that aches with an acute feeling of time running out. Best of all might be ‘All My Love’, a bittersweet, quietly majestic ballad that drifts unhurriedly like a cloud of smoke, framed by lingering piano notes and Eitzel’s finest vocal performance on the album. Elsewhere, songs may seem disappointingly prosaic for a songwriter who’s been called America’s greatest living lyricist. But the plainness of the likes of ‘Why Are You with Me?’ is deceiving: what seems like a litany of self-deprecating put-downs gradually revels itself as a vulnerable song of love and loss, nuanced enough to make up for the occasional wrong step, most notably the jarring cabaret/oompah of ‘Break the Champagne’.