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Mark Eitzel | The Ugly American (TongueMaster)
Novel enough to cause all but the most jaded to do a double take, Mark Eitzel's second album in six months reshapes a batch of mostly American Music Club-era songs, dressing them up with the help of arrangements from Manolis Famelos and a handful of other Greek associates. It's here, right at the beginning of this hack review, and right at the beginning of the album, that a raison d'√™tre for this record should stand up and make itself known... Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be one, beyond a shrugged 'why not?' and 'The Ugly American' trails a whiff of vanity behind it. What apparently began life as an EP, and an opportunistic excuse for a Mediterranean holiday, has been expanded into a ten-song album that covers enough bases to leave anyone with a fondness for Eitzel's oeuvre eagerly expectant. Delving as far back as AMC's 1987 album 'Engine' with a largely reworded version of Nightwatchman, 'The Ugly American' is made up of six songs from AMC albums, three that date from Eitzel's solo years (including What Good Is Love, previously only heard on the rare 'Lovers Leap USA' tour CD from 1998), and one song written by Manolis Famellos: Love's Humming (Black Love). It's a measure of the album's status as a lame duck from its inception that the self-involvement and passion that makes Eitzel such a vital artist is mostly absent, called upon only for the songs he's not already over-familiar (and possibly bored to tears) with. Only on What Good Is Love and Love's Humming does Eitzel seem engaged with the song and not overly focused on either reworking the lyrics (on the hoof by the sound of it) or subduing himself to fit in with the gentle melodicism of these polite refits. Here They Roll Down is alone among the more familiar songs in ruffling the otherwise serene, businesslike feathers with its startling, Joujouka-like incantation, as Eitzel spits out his bitter observations. "Hey look at me, I'm free," he repeats at the end of the song, and, in the context of this record and the notion of liberating himself from the surely burdensome shadow of his back catalogue, it's simultaneously defiant and desperately ironic. Perhaps there'll be some debate as to whether it all conforms to an authentic rendering of traditional Greek music. I'm in no position to contribute to such a discussion, but I do know that these songs have much of their urgency and passion bleached away by their tasteful orderliness. Listen to the 'California' or 'Songs of Love' versions of Last Harbour before spinning the 'Ugly American' retailoring and all will become clear. Or Jenny, say, with its "stupid party" refrain rewritten as "stupid rock show", as an indication of the lyrical subtlety and evocativeness that's lost, replaced by novelty and topical bugbears. It's a crude, dirty trick to compare different versions of songs, I know. But the unwritten premise of this record - novelty readings of AMC favourites - makes it unavoidable. 'The Ugly American' is a product; it's opportunism. Not the worst thing in the world when it's Mark Eitzel we're talking about, certainly, but let's call this spade exactly what it is. Too much like a labour of nostalgia, it comes across as a reactionary exercise, a sentimental portal onto AMC's back catalogue that fumbles the more interesting opportunity to push forward in distinctive fashion with some of the many unreleased songs Eitzel has piled up. Whatever. I hope he had a good time in Athens ‚?? ouzo, Byzantine art, bougainvillaea...Greece is a beautiful country. And, whatever else they may be, these are beautiful songs really.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002