Mark Eitzel’s new album, Candy Ass is clearly the work of a raving narcissist. Long considered one of modern music’s more talented lyricists, Eitzel subverts his principal strength by turning in an album largely driven by instrumental electronic pieces. When lyrics appear, they are most often atmospheric elements in service of the larger goals of the electronics and occasional live (though heavily processed) instruments.
The marriage of indie rock to electronica is an intriguing quest, but successful examples are relatively rare. Often such projects work best as collaborations (e.g. Postal Service) between seasoned indie kids and electro-wizards. Mark Eitzel chooses to make his journey alone and the choice is evident both in the isolating feel of the album, and the sub-par electronic effort.
Here’s the problem: as a programmer, Eitzel is somewhat of a one-trick pony. His basic method is as follows: take a bass track, add tons of reverb to create atmosphere. Throw in some sliding synth lines and a keyboard accent of some kind (organ, piano, whatever). Top it off with a drumbeat (any drumbeat will do). If feeling generous, add live guitar part and vocals. Make vocals slow and breathy to ensure good blend with atmosphere. With slight variations, this formula accounts for the vast majority of Candy Ass. When the formula works it gets boring quickly, and where the formula is changed the music is almost painful (witness the final four tracks).
For a precious, two-song spurt, however, the system almost works. On “Make Sure They Hear” and “Sleeping Beauty,” These songs recall somber walks through wet neighborhoods at night. Eitzel delivers strong lyrics and haunting, shuffling beats accented by nice guitar parts. This happens early on the disc, before the system gets old, and before the instrumental pieces start to tear away at the will to live. Perhaps more importantly, it happens immediately after two of the worst songs on the disc: “My Pet Rat St. Michael” and “Cotton Candy Tenth Power.” The former, being the least atmospheric track, sounds completely out of sync with the rest of the record. Worse yet, the pleasant guitar is crippled by lyrics that sound like they were stolen from a middle school literary magazine.
It doesn’t help that the album is pathologically downtrodden. While Mark Eitzel has made his living making sadness beautiful, much of this was accomplished using live instrumentation. The warmth and fullness of a live guitar has the ancillary effect of creating hope out of despair. Even the saddest moments of Nick Drake or Elliott Smith are made joyous or at least bittersweet by the sliver of brightness introduced in the music. Mark Eitzel lacks the skill as a programmer to create this soul in his electronics, giving his sadness a cold, industrial, isolating effect. Instead of inviting listeners to enjoy the pain, this music shuts them out. It wants to be alone, and it probably should be.
It is serendipitous that the album is titled Candy Ass, and the cover art shows a carnival game, because the whole ordeal reminds of those hellish late-night hours on the fair ground, when the kids are all sick to their stomachs, and that damn calliope won’t shut up, and the rides never seem to end, and all you can do is close your eyes to shut out the spinning neon and hope that your wife will send you to fetch the car before you lose your soul along with your lunch.
Stars – Heart
Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92
Smog – Knock Knock