Like families, each unhappy singer-songwriter is unhappy in his own fashion, a fact made clear by Mark Mulcahy, For Stars and Mark Eitzel, all of whom showed the many tones that musical depression can take.
Eitzel’s talent hits you in rushes of images and spiraling, untidy knots of melody. Songs from the former frontman of American Music Club are by turns craggy, romantic, sly, mordant, filled with unexpected juxtapositions and alleyways that beg for further exploration.
Watching Eitzel perform is like sitting next to a total stranger at some hotel bar, hearing him spin his life stories. You’re abashed by his vulnerability at the same time you’re engrossed by his tales, and want him to keep talking, although it’s not clear if he might turn ugly.
Eitzel’s new album “The Invisible Man” (Matador) takes its production cues from electronic music, and his band mixes samplers, drum machines, keyboards and live instruments. The combination gives the songs a dense yet intangible quality, like the fog that comes off the San Francisco Bay.
As focused as his music sounded (especially Brian Gregory’s intense guitar work), at the Knitting Factory Eitzel never found his comfort zone. The new material (which made up the bulk of his set) is painted with a brighter emotional palette than his past work, but songs such as “Sleep,” with it’s unresolved, abstract chords and “Seeing Eye Dog” were given taut, emotionally reserved performances. Compelling and inscrutable in equal measures, he seemed distant even when he unplugged his guitar and sang directly to the audience, without amplification, during “What Holds the World Together” (the only American Music Club he performed).
Mulcahy came closest to the usual singer-songwriter paradigm. Accompanying himself on electric guitar (with violin occasionally added by Sal Garza), the former leader of Miracle Legion often sounds like a Yankee version of David Gray. Eccentric, circular songs such as “Mircon the Icon” and “The Quiet One,” from his new album “SmileSunset” (Mezzotint), show a welcome streak of dry wit; his jazzy, Van Morrison-esque phrasing allows him to come off as a not-so-hard-boiled tough guy.
There’s nothing tough about For Stars’ Carlos Foster; he’s the shy kid who sat at the back of the class with a dreamy look on his face. Singing like a SoCal Morrissey, he aches for imperfect objects of desire who are no more accessible for being flawed.