Not infrequently, I dream of athletic complexes being engulfed in water. The spectators go on as before, just underwater now and smiling at the floor through a big green oceanic lens. I’m in the nosebleeds. All of us breathe easily, floating over the rows of seats, the nets and boards, up to the high spotlights that continue to glow like flares. Since no one drowns, I find the dream to be just that: not a nightmare, but a creepy kind of wish. Eighteen thousand people are united in element. It’s a strange dream, but consistent.
The one inconsistency is whatever music is playing on the loudspeakers before the water hits. Always, the music stinks. Gloria Estefan or the Baha Men or hip hop with the words changed to support the home team. In the dream, I’m smiling with what must be senile dementia. This is the only part taken plausibly from real life. Watching the Sacramento Kings lose another playoff, for instance, I’ve found myself tapping my foot along with a little between-play Chumbawamba. I’m not proud of that.
Last week I explained the dream to a friend, who took the symbolism as an opportunity to consider the topic of music’s sociability. Her interpretation hinged on the idea that music consumed alone, in strict privacy, is not in its natural state. The various social aspects of music—at sporting events, for instance, or even cultural awareness in the form of magazines, logos, concert-going, burning the new Sufjan Stevens record, dressing like a Stroke when you go out to buy clotted cream—force us to admit that we’d probably all love to stroll through a world where we make music ourselves, where our voices sing without shame or where our refined tastes predominate. In the real world, however, these aspects create dogma: a dividing line keeping the tastes of the madding crowd in one place while enclosing a small branded circle to call your own. The more “popular” arenas of shared experience (symbolized here by the athletic complex) tend to strike us somewhat uncomfortably, since we prefer a great deal of our tastes to retreat from the public, fearful of complete dissipation. In this way, music is a surrogate—a great deal of ourselves retreats from the public and seeks safety underground, out of sight. We leave behind what feel like our useless parts, the ones that nod along with Chumbawamba.
So after listening to all this, I spaced out on what I felt to be a logical extension of the symbolism: what might the most ill-chosen, anti-social, dividing-line athletic-complex music choices be? Who has made music meant to be consumed in strictest privacy? Who’d really test the sociability theory? Or, at the very least, who’d completely kill the mood? Pantera? Elliot Smith? Early-career Yes? Peter Criss’ solo work? Sebadoh? The Cramps? Jefferson Starship?
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to nominate American Music Club.
The most miserably unsung band of the 1990s has returned to a largely indifferent public with either the best or the worst album to play at high volume at national sporting events. The thoughtful, dissonant, lovely and often unsettling Love Songs For Patriots is a fresh bruise of a record that—by a bizarre personal coincidence—features on its cover a full symphony orchestra playing in a circle of light. The orchestra is completely underwater.
Never has a band with more epic, ambitious reach made the kind of music that so utterly separates itself from the public. Proof can be found in two places: (1) the fact that their remarkable catalogue is made up of mostly off-kilter, mostly drunken recriminations composed for brass and strings and then played through a fuzz-box, and (2) the suspicion that many of you have likely never even heard of American Music Club. Allow me to put it this way. If rock critics agree on two things, it’s that the Velvet Underground can do no wrong, and that the sixties would have been a shitload cooler if that band had actually been played on the radio. I’m not the first to chart this particular graph: in the rock-critic’s alternative universe, the 1960s got hip to VU, the 1970s radio stations welcomed a lot more Big Star, the 1980s saw several Grammys handed out to the Replacements, and in the 1990s American Music Club outsold everyone else. Each of those alternative-universe bands was dogmatic. Their music was beautifully atomized, made up of elements that didn’t mix well with others; embracing any of their works as a fan is taking a stance against a hundred other bands of radically different philosophies.
AMC, like its brilliant counterparts, seems fated to be some kind of band’s band, a songwriter’s unsung love. Their bravely intimate music tests the theory that passion sells passionately, or that grand universals are always to be found in the most personal details. And what details. Songwriter and lead singer Mark Eitzel leads a group of addicts consumed by and devoted to excess—a surfeit of influences, a fluid and promiscuous musicality, as well as an enormous confessional trust in any listener who sympathizes with the spirit of excess. Bigger, funnier, truer and more frightening than anything else I’ve ever heard, each record positively overwhelms the listener—a kind of amorousness that grabs and throttles you in the guise of making love.
Love Songs For Patriots is a fresh chance to consider the odd nature of music meant to be doled out one song at a time. AMC’s songs, taken individually, are like those horrible people you force yourself to admire, people who are good at pretty much everything: sharp and kind-hearted and well-dressed and eloquent and seriously in touch with a bottomless well of emotional wisdom (and probably good in bed, too—you sort of have to suspect it). The records freaking simmer with ambition. They also burn with rage at the hamstrung sense of working within a constricted form. Eitzel and the band are nonetheless able to coax—and then reinvent—the angriest, most wounded bits of schmaltz from the grand American pop-songwriter’s tradition: earliest Tom Waits or Burt Bacharach or Carole King, smashed into the complete going-to-fuck-myself attitude of the best bar band in the free world. Visit whatever downloading service works best and locate a handful of their greatest non-hits: “Can You Help Me,” “If I Had A Hammer,” “Jesus’ Hands,” “The Dead Part Of You,” “Hello Amsterdam,” “Why Won’t You Stay,” “Outside This Bar.” No two will sound remotely alike. In the past, by drawing on a hundred sources, equally enamoured of each one, AMC had fated itself to never connect with a single coherent style, or at least not with an authority that inspired either buyers or record companies to trust them. Only in an alternative world—underwater to our terra firma—could their hopeful approach be rewarded. And it is hopeful. The new record continues a tradition of pushing genre orthodoxy to one side and keeping what matters: a conviction that all songs are love songs, meant to be sung to the unconverted.
My post-dream advice is this: go, visit their website, stream the hard-to-find tracks, iTune a sample from Love Songs for Patriots and you might sense that one or two taste boundaries are suddenly a bit more porous. It will feel like you’re being throttled and choked, but trust me—it’s only violent lovemaking. Believe also that taste separates life vertically, not horizontally. It’s hierarchical. Taste moves from the world above to the one below and back again, from the murk of underneath to the bright sociable sun. Maybe the creepy-wish aspect of my underwater dream means that I want music like American Music Club’s to wash over a crowd of thousands and sweep them all into my own little circle. Or maybe my little circle could get bigger. Whatever separates our individual tastes from those of the crowd would be washed away into a world where the dogmatics of “taste” don’t matter all that much. There AMC would be played at incredibly high volume.
I have played Love Songs for Patriots at odd hours of the day since it arrived in the mail, and more so since having that silly dream. My apartment windows overlook a courtyard far, far below that constantly bustles. It’s like staring at an aquarium. More than once I’ve reflexively shut off the stereo, concerned about the neighbours—some hours I am afraid they’ll hear the album, and other times of day I think that’s not such a bad idea. But always, the silly dream superimposes itself over this view of a public in motion, and I recall seven lines from a poet named John Morris—deceased, unsung, fated to live a poet’s underwater life—who wrote them to his young daughter, struggling to survive a swimming lesson with her parents at the community pool:
You are over your head.
Screaming, you are learning
Your way toward us,
You are learning how
In the helpless water
It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.
Paul Winner unfurls the Score every second Monday.