Like the Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan and the Afghan Wigs' Greg Dulli, former American Music Club songwriter and vocalist Mark Eitzel has a husky baritone that gels nicely with his literate lyrics of emotional self-evisceration. Tales of drunken abandon and the inevitable laments that follow after liquor's cloudy veil evaporates don't hit as poignantly when recounted by a wispy, brittle voice. They need the bulk and grit of smoke-stained vocal chords that reek of bourbon and bathos. And like Lanegan and Dulli, Eitzel's always found a way to bring more traditional musical modes into the ferment of his post-punk passion. AMC corralled bits of folk, jazzy lounge and the occasional country kick into a smoldering package for Eitzel's rambunctious antics and Norman Mailer-like advertisements for his bared soul.
With 2001's Invisible Man, Eitzel's first album in three years, he makes a turn toward a different sort of genre bending. Tapping into the trickery of electronic gadgetry, Eitzel's discovered he can wander through the valley in the shadow of dots and loops as hauntingly and moodily as Nick Cave wallows in morose piano and violin accompaniment. And it lends Eitzel's melancholic angst a butterfly-like briskness that he's rarely displayed before: Think of the lush, torch-song ornamentation of Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom and you'll be on the right track as to placing Invisible Man into Eitzel's solo career.
And Invisible is probably as close to tin-pan alley pop as Eitzel's ever going to get, even if its ambient beats sound closer to Kriedler than Kurt Weill. The dirge "Sleep" floats over plaintive organ lines and reverberated tone pulses that wink at the sort of gospel album that Autechre will never make. "Can You See?" features Eitzel handling this bittersweet mash note with a hint of a frolic in his voice. Yes, he occasionally sounds sprightly here. He even gets downright witty in "Christian Science Reading Room," where he intones, "I was so high that I even scared the cat," flirting with the humor of stoned epiphanies before waxing philosophic by the song's close.
How this extremely effective and infectious new twist for Eitzel plays out live may be a different sort of obstacle--even the most suave and adept electronica peddlers often have a hard time translating an album's programmed warmth and dizzying grooves into luscious, effective performances onstage. If it's the sort of thing that Eitzel can charm out of a band of live musicians, he may have stumbled upon the sort of songwriting process that can lead him out of AMC's shadow and into a more compelling spotlight as a solo artist. And that's a promise to raise a glass to.