Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Dark Mark

Eitzel's suspicious mind.

By Stephanie Zacharek

JANUARY 20, 1998:  Mark Eitzel isn't my favorite artist, but I'm beginning to think he's one of my favorite kinds of artist -- the kind who makes me want to blurt out, on my first listen to a record, "Who are you, and what the hell do you think you're doing?" I remember listening to Eitzel's 1996 CD, 60 Watt Silver Lining (Warner Bros.), and wondering whether I felt hypnotized or simply bored out of my skull.

Overall, I decided, I was hypnotized, but what I liked best about the disc was that it took me so long to make up my mind. Like a stone whose color fluctuates with the light, 60 Watt Silver Lining took on a different cast with every listening: sometimes I thought its poetry was hoky, other times I'd hear something in it that stopped me in my tracks. "Though Noah doesn't want me, you won't let me drown," Eitzel sang, and one minute I might have told you the line was dorky and overwrought, the next I might have said that I almost couldn't stand to be in the same room with so much loneliness, that this idea of a clumsy, waterlogged bear with no suitable mate in sight made me feel unspeakably sad.

I'm still not completely sure how I feel about Eitzel's latest, Caught in a Trap and I Can't Back Out 'Cause I Love You Too Much, Baby (Matador), and I like it that way. I do know that I loved the title immediately, thinking that it probably had everything and nothing to do with the songs on the album. And sure enough, I was right. You could say that Caught in a Trap is a set of songs about the feelings that lurk in the murky corners of the number that inspired the disc's title, Elvis's "Suspicious Minds": bitterness, mistrust, disbelief that some mighty good things have suddenly and irreparably fallen apart. But there's also a good measure of delight and wonder in Eitzel's songs, as well as in his smoky voice. Eitzel, formerly of American Music Club, often trades on mopiness and self-absorption, yet there's also an openness to his vocals that can be touching -- it's a kind of eagerness, a willingness to be drawn out of his shell if only someone would make him the right offer.

More than half the songs on Caught in a Trap feature just Eitzel and a lone acoustic guitar, and these are the most effective: they're naked and plain, like Shaker furniture or blond eyelashes with no mascara, and they leave whisperlike traces after they're over. Eitzel doesn't just reach for the easy chord changes. He gravitates toward oddball ones, often giving his songs curiously wavy shapes and structures that convey both emotional uncertainty and, because they're so artistically confident, a conviction that's almost cocky. Most of these are subtle, quiet songs, and yet there's nothing timid about the way Eitzel performs them. In "Are You the Trash," he sings, "You're a figment of his vanity, you're a glint in his eye/Even when it hurts you it all seems OK/His beauty is always beyond you and somehow always gets in the way." The words' rhythm presents its own set of problems: fitting them comfortably into a musical phrase should be about as simple as getting a giraffe into a Volkswagen. But Eitzel sings the line without straining, making it sound easy and free, as if he were just chatting with a lover. Sometimes when his poetry is too overblown ("It doesn't matter how I seek my peace/Nothing separates me from the beast"), his effortless phrasing at least tones it down a notch.

Eitzel and his guitar alone at first sound so natural that it's almost jarring when, toward the second half of the album, he's joined by other musicians, including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, and Congo Norvell guitarist Kid Congo Powers (formerly of the Gun Club and Cramps). But the lusher, more full-bodied songs in the middle of the record, particularly "Queen of No One" and "Cold Light of Day," give it some ballast. They also heighten its drama: on "Cold Light of Day," you can hear the way Eitzel grasps to stay afloat amid Powers's churning guitar phrases, desolate and foreboding as a Turner seascape. His voice is fragile and cracked and pushed to its limits -- and he sounds as if those limits terrified even him.

Eitzel as an artist can be, to put it bluntly, simply boring -- yet his slack moments are never enough to cancel out his understated passion. "Your kisses taste bitter/You say you're my future/In the cold light of day," he sings, the sound of a man who's caught in a trap and can't back out. It's as if he had painstakingly and lovingly loaded that line from "Suspicious Minds" with dynamite, so he could, when the time was right, blow it apart, for the sheer joy and terror of standing in the middle as the pieces shower down around him.

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