There's something fascinating about how singers' voices change as they come to terms with their innate gifts and limits, honing in on whatever is essential about themselves. Sometimes it happens by slow erosion, like Leonard Cohen's voice growing less beautiful and more wise, or the brass leaching off Richard Buckner's to reveal a deeper layer. Sometimes it happens through trauma, as when Levon Helm lost his voice to throat cancer and then miraculously got it back, intact but scarred, giving his old songs a second life. And sometimes, a vocalist who has been feigning something gathers the courage to be himself: Think of how Ghostface has relaxed into the high, limber whine of his natural register, divulging so much more character than the lower, stiffer tough-guy timbre he used to cultivate. All three of these learning processes bear fruit in Don't Be a Stranger, American Music Club frontman Mark Eitzel's best record since 2001's The Invisible Man.
American Music Club, the cultiest of on-again off-again alt-rock survivors, have been refining their studious brand of Americana-- which emphasizes old-fashioned strains of jazz, lounge music, popular song, and hard rock-- for 30 years, so Eitzel's voice has had plenty of time to weather. A heart attack in his recent past didn't change his voice the way Helm's cancer changed his, but one suspects that it catalyzed the third, most significant development here. Brushes with death have a way of clarifying people's self-images and drives-- basically, of cutting through the bullshit. On Don't Be a Stranger, Eitzel remains as moony and self-lacerating as ever. He still gets into an oracular mood when hanging around with barflies on Main Street USA. But he dials down the tin-megaphone bluster that, even at its best, could feel strained in American Music Club. Now he revels in the delicate inner elements of his voice rather than growling over them, and sounds more natural and inviting than ever.
Eitzel is funny in that peculiarly Eitzel way when describing how this record came about. He took his "horrible demos" to "poor long-suffering" Merge Records, who replied, "Oh Mark. Really?" Merge relented after a friend of his manager who had won the lottery loaned the money to hire producer Sheldon Gomberg and make a studio recording of the songs. They were first conceived for an abandoned American Music Club album, whose long-term guitarist Vudi joins Eitzel here. The windfall paid for a tasteful, sometimes vivid backdrop that favors rich acoustic instruments. There are intimations of Spanish guitar throughout, most interestingly conceived on "Break the Champagne", where tremolos are implied with a Marxophone. The BooHoo Institutional Choir-- presumably, some people who happened to be around-- adds intriguingly dark-colored harmonies.
Allowing his voice to latch more directly than usual to the mobile cadences of jazz and soul, with the soft honk that was always latent in his croon tenderly magnified, Eitzel channels a number of unsuspected singers across Don't Be a Stranger, like Billie Holliday on "I Love You but You're Dead" and Antony Hegarty on "Costume Characters Face Dangers in the Workplace". Standout track "Oh Mercy" could almost be a Bill Withers song, with a smoky vocal line cracking over a cyclic minor melody, and it lays out a perspective to which the album often returns: that of the ghost at the feast. As ever, Eitzel observes other people having fun while fretting about political iniquities and personal inadequacies. The difference is that his tone, formerly accusatory, has softened and turned inward. It's that of someone presiding at a dark corner table, bemused by his own views, rather than proselytizing on a plywood stage.
The lyrics of Don't Be a Stranger are in the one-sided conversation form that Eitzel likes, with reams of subtly altered clichés abruptly slipping off-register into idiosyncrasy or hostility, as when he sneers out of nowhere on "Costume Characters", "I did not mean to scare your sad little brat." The delicate ardor and tenuous conviction that typify that album are most sentimentally expressed on the gently swaying piano ballad "All My Love" and most honestly on "We All Have to Find Our Own Way Out". There are moments of wry irony, as when Eitzel sings, "The guitar was pure evil like the engines on a jet," over gentle nylon strings on the strikingly written roadhouse fable "I Love You but You're Dead". But even when the lyrics edge on generic, as they sometimes do, Eitzel's singing draws me in. If Leonard Cohen's voice is a story about the passage of time and Levon Helm's is a story about losing what is most precious to you, Eitzel's is about the circuitous roads we take in search of ourselves. It's moving to hear him seem to arrive.
I discovered it thanking Silvia Boschero;-) and Moby Dick on RAI-Radio 2!