AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB

"Love Songs for Patriots"

Merge

WILL JOHNSON

"Vultures Await"

Misra

There's a thin line between bracing honesty and self-serving narcissism, and Mark Eitzel has spent his career dancing on both sides of that boundary, both with his legendary band, the American Music Club, and as a solo artist. The AMC broke up in 1995, having never grasped the R.E.M.-like success so often predicted for it. But now three of the original members -- singer-songwriter Eitzel, guitarist Vudi and bassist Danny Pearson -- have reassembled the band with their last drummer, Tim Mooney, and a new keyboardist, Marc Capelle, for a new album, "Love Songs for Patriots."

The strengths are the same -- Eitzel's occasional stunning turns of phrase, the band's ability to establish an atmosphere of claustrophobic angst and then lighten it with small touches of Americana; but so are the weaknesses -- Eitzel's esoteric vagueness, his lack of melody, the band's inability to create any rhythmic momentum.

What has changed is Eitzel's increased willingness to engage the world outside his apartment. The album's key track, "Patriot's Heart," implies an analogy between a declining American empire and an aging gay stripper with dollar bills stuck in his underwear. Several other songs make similar connections, and when Eitzel grabs hold of a real melody, as he does on "Only Love Can Set You Free" and "Home," he links bedroom conflicts to battlefield conflicts so tightly that you can't tell which is the metaphor and which is the true subject.

Will Johnson has written and sung the songs on six full-length albums by his Texas band Centro-matic, on two more by his other Texas band South San Gabriel and on two solo projects. His latest solo disc, "Vultures Await," opens with ghostly parlor piano, a gravelly voice reminiscent of Tom Waits at his gloomiest and lyrics about "Catherine Dupree," a woman so angered by the worthlessness of her liberal arts degree that she burns down the university. Refusing to either defend or prosecute his protagonist, Johnson merely calls her "a hero in vain" in his weary, detached baritone.

This sets the tone for the album's dozen slices of gothic minimalism, music that's decidedly starker and darker than Cento-matic's Neil Youngish country-rock. None of the other stories are as well developed or as willing to look beyond the mirror as that first one, and Johnson resists melody and meaning all too successfully at times. But when his slow-moving music and intense growl cluster around a defined tune and a sharp image, the results can be quite vivid, as on the anguished love songs "Just to Know What You've Been Dreaming" and "Nothin' but Godzilla."

-- Geoffrey Himes

Appearing Thursday at Iota. * To hear a free Sound Bite from American Music Club, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8102; to hear Will Johnson, press 8103. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)