Mood Music

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If sad songs say so much, Mark Eitzel's career has been more than a mouthful.

First as singer-songwriter of the rock band American Music Club and now on his own, Eitzel is so consistently and emphatically downcast that an all-Eitzel radio station might plug itself as "All bad news, all the time."

Such strong releases as American Music Club's early-'90s albums, "Everclear" and "Mercury," and Eitzel's current solo record, "West," have been good news for listeners willing to immerse themselves in sadness and soak up the pleasures of sophisticated, off-center song-craft. Eitzel, 38, delivers his laments in a smoky, chesty voice, resisting trendy ironic detachment and offering the brave, unstinting openheartedness of a doomed romantic who clings to frayed strands of hope.

Some fans are so attached to his sorrowing, Eitzel says, that they're put off to find he isn't like his songs--at least not always.

"I can't live up to what people want me to live up to. I'm accused of being too upbeat. 'How dare you!' " he said over the phone from his rented house in San Francisco. Eitzel's tone was convivial and positive, even though the next item on his to-do list was forking over $500 to the auto repair shop. He wouldn't disclose the make. "I have a total Yupmobile," he confessed.

If, heaven forbid, Eitzel tools around in a Beamer, it would be one of the few signs of prosperity in a career that has landed him a small cult following. His shows tonight at McCabe's in Santa Monica and Monday at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach are early stops on a monthlong economy tour: one man, one guitar, one automobile, on the road for the enjoyment of perhaps 300 or 400 fans per night.

"I wanted to buy a car that would outlast my career. Unfortunately, it kind of has," Eitzel quipped.

In all seriousness, Eitzel says he worries that weak sales for his two solo albums, last year's "60 Watt Silver Lining" and "West," which has been out five months, might cost him his record deal with Warner Bros.

"I don't know how long they're going to stick with me. They're really good people, and it would be a shame" to be dropped.

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince declared himself a "slave" to Warner Bros. in ending his long, lucrative association with the label. But Eitzel says it has lavished him with freedom, if not riches, in making records that fall outside of commercial norms.

"60 Watt" is a torchy, languid trek through jazz-tinged melancholy, with doomed jazzman Chet Baker as a key influence. "West," in which Eitzel enlisted a famous fan, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, as songwriting partner and co-producer, includes some bright (musically, if not lyrically), '60s-grounded pop-rock moments as well as Eitzel's customary Elvis Costello-like wounded emotionalism.

In the music-biz equivalent of an open marriage, Eitzel says his next release, due early next year, finds him consorting with the independent label Matador, with Warner's blessing.

"It's sort of a different slant. It's rigidly anti-commercial, mostly acoustic guitar and vocals, done live. Warner Bros. was thinking, 'He writes all these songs; we can only [release] one album a year; let's see if Matador can help with promoting him.' "

If nothing else, the album will be notable for the length of its Elvis Presley-derived title, "Caught in a Trap, I Can't Walk Out, Because I Love You Too Much, Baby."

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With "West," Eitzel sometimes indulges morose feeling with such wallowing abjectness that one suspects he's parodying himself and his audiences' expectations. On the album's concluding song, he moans the refrain, "No one cares if I live or die." Elsewhere, in a line so over-the-top pathetic it's funny, he describes himself as "another drip lost in the Milky Way."

"That [the 'drip' metaphor], made me laugh when I wrote it," Eitzel admitted. "I thought, 'Yeah, that's really bad. Do it.' "

As for the self-pitying refrain of "Live or Die," Eitzel said, "It is sort of self-parodic. That is the ultimate corny thing I would be expected to say, but it's also the truth. There's no denying it. You have to be shameless. You have to suspend your judgment sometimes. I don't have any family or friends, and at that time in my life that [notion that 'no one cares if I live or die'] was true."

Eitzel also mentions that he has a sister in Ohio and at least one friend, film director Matt Amato. They co-wrote a film musical based on "Left-Handed Woman," by the Austrian novelist Peter Handke, and Eitzel will perform songs this weekend for prospective investors, hoping to reel in $1 million.

We now interrupt this article for a shocking bulletin:

"I've been into writing love songs, really joyful, hopeful love songs," Eitzel announced. "I've got a bunch of those I'll put on my next record for Warner Bros."

Ah, so smart-pop's Mr. Pitiful has found that special, shining someone to dry his tears?

"No," Eitzel said cheerfully. "There's no joyful love in my life, so that's the best reason to start writing [joyful love songs]. I made a decision I was going to write 'em."

Eitzel says his songwriting has matured to the point where he can write about loving happiness in a way that meets his standards for believability. The same goes for political songs, which Eitzel struggled with until recently.

"When you're young, you just react. That's why a lot of the greatest pop songs are written by young people. They're reacting, writing the first thing that comes into their mind, without any shame. The trouble with the things that pop into your mind is that if you're not careful they're just the things that are easiest for you to say. You fall into certain habits and rhythms of writing. If you jar yourself and say, 'C'mon [expletive], try something new,' that will always make better songs happen."

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Lest his fans fret that Eitzel has ceased fretting, he notes that he plans a two-CD opus in which sunny love songs on the first disc give way to gloom on the second.

"The [happy] CD is going to be called, 'Box Office Poison.' I haven't told Warner Bros. about it yet, but I'll deliver it for nothing, so the accountants won't be upset. The second CD is going to be called, 'I Lost My Humor,' and that's pretty down. I gave the demos to Warner Bros. and they were like, 'Um, are you OK?' "

Now that Eitzel is playing intimate, solo-acoustic shows (after a two-week spring tour backed by Buck and his side-project band, Tuatara), he can emulate Richard Thompson and other luminaries of anguished songwriting who like to put on a puckish between-songs bearing to offset the dark emotions.

Eitzel is not sure he is up for that. "It depends what mood I'm in. I'm legendary for being in a bad mood. Hell, I couldn't listen to me. Well, I could, actually, but I prefer people who make me laugh."

* Mark Eitzel and Grace Zabriski play tonight at McCabe's Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $10. (310) 828-4497. Eitzel and Lucky play Monday at the Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade, Long Beach. 9 p.m. $10. (562) 983-7111 (club) or (562) 984-8349 (taped info).

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