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American Music Club, Ass Ponys
Lounge Ax, December 2

There's a bit of a show-biz revival going on in the music business lately. From Combustible Edison's well-formulated and well-costumed exotica/lounge act hybrid to Urge Overkill's Nate Kato donning kid gloves to croon his way through Neil Diamond's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" to the reinvention of Tom Jones as an irony-laden "alternative rock" icon, the glitz and glamour that went out of fashion along with disco seem to be coming back. As day-to-day living gets bleaker, excess and artifice are getting more popular; as taxes increase, quality of life and rights of the individual decline, and folks live in fear of diseases they can't afford to treat, entertainment is once again providing escape.

So it figures that Barbra Streisand has done some major pocket gouging during the last year. To her biggest fans, and there are lots of them, she's never been in decline, natch, but her recent string of live dates at unwieldy ticket prices reasserted to the rest of the world her power in an industry sapped by countless purveyors of crap. Musical talent isn't what this scene's necessarily about; like Roger Whittaker, Don Ho, Wayne Newton, and Carol Channing, Streisand is above all an entertainer, a first-rate master of artifice. And that's exactly what's behind the irony-drenched appreciation held by today's generation of lounge lizards for these Vegas stars: they're excellent because they're so good at being fake.

Where American Music Club's Mark Eitzel fits into all of this is a little more complicated. Performing at the Lounge Ax last week, Eitzel again proved he is neither glamorous nor slick. But at the same time it's hard not to see him chasing the shadows of glitzier entertainers. On last year's masterful Mercury (Reprise), Eitzel sings "I lay all my songs at Johnny Mathis's feet" and goes on, "With a wave of his jewel-encrusted hand / Across the glittering Las Vegas scene / He said, 'You gotta learn how to disappear in the silk and amphetamine.'" Eitzel seems to have a vicious love-hate relationship with the performance style of singers like Mathis and Streisand, attracted to the florid displays of feeling but disheartened by the illusion. Live, this apparent contradiction manifested itself in Eitzel's majestic bouts of emotional bloodletting, barbed with brutal chunks of merciless self-denigration. On a blitzkrieg rendering of American Music Club's current single, the rocking "Wish the World Away," Eitzel altered his lyrics to "I'm not funny, but I'm a joke."

Eitzel is notorious for his sentimental shenanigans (he's broken down onstage plenty of times), and his bizarre banter with the audience last Friday--a succession of remarks about how pathetic he is, an indecipherable line about dildos, disjointed and confusing song explanations--was par for the course. An encore performance of "The Dead Part of You"--"You only love one thing / And there's so little of it left / And he has taken everything / And there's so little of you left"--was twice interrupted as Eitzel apparently became overwhelmed by emotion; his cryptic answer to the halts was "I've been thinking about this song a lot."

In a recent issue of Rolling Stone Eitzel gushed about his adoration of Streisand, and it seems fairly obvious that onstage Eitzel is attempting to genuinely experience the sort of feelings that the entertainers merely simulate. He's smart and self-aware enough to realize that Streisand's not really baring her soul, but when he hits the stage it's like he's forgotten about the artifice. He reaches for the heights, but his shortcomings--he's balding, self-doubting, and emotionally erratic--trip him up. Sometimes literally: a few years ago while attempting a melodramatic swoop down upon the microphone, he went sprawling to the ground face first.

At the Lounge Ax show a friend referred to American Music Club's music as "adult rock," and over the course of seven albums, all of them dominated by Eitzel's overwrought ballads, they've honed a style that wouldn't sound out of place on an adult-contemporary radio station. But the flowery gloss of the music--a lush blend of acoustic guitars, aching pedal steel, and evocative, coloristic electric guitar--is consistently undermined by lyrics both bleak and oblique: "The world is held together by the wind / That blows through Gena Rowlands's hair." Eitzel is unusually open and vulnerable, but he's also nervous, imperfect, and frightened. In a way he's the perfect antidote to the new wave of glitz: an entertainer without artifice.

Cincinnati's Ass Ponys, who opened for AMC, brought with them their own sort of honesty, albeit considerably more low-key. Chuck Cleaver's dark, deceptively simple songs paint unassuming portraits of what boredom fosters in small-town life, frank in their depiction of strange personal quirks and uncanny in their understated universality. Whether making fun of a knit-crazy elder in "Earth to Grandma"--"It's a doll completely made of socks / It's a cover for a tissue box"--or telling the saga of a suicide pact forsaken in favor of a life of the cloth in "Grim," Cleaver possesses an innate understanding of the complexities and nuances of his subjects, exploring their hidden extremes with sensitivity and empathy rather than mocking them.

His tales are couched in appealing strum-happy grooves whose plainness effectively complements the directness of the narratives. As the title of their just-issued major-label debut Electric Rock Music (A&M) attests, the Ass Ponys are decidedly not entertainers. Yet as their breezy, off-the-cuff performance adeptly demonstrated, the honesty of their music resonates because of its very simplicity, aspiring to be neither flashy nor ironic, but only real.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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