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Soon after, former Matador executive Johan Kugelberg offered to produce an all-covers album in Los Angeles, using Beck's rhythm section. Eitzel jumped at the chance, recording tunes like Liberace's "I'll Be Seeing You" ("The Billie Holiday version," he swears), Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up," and a couple of songs Elvis covered, "Snowbird" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night." Eitzel sent the semicomplete demos for both albums to various labels, but no one showed much interest. Matador co-owner Chris Lombardi remembers: "Mark wanted a big-budget covers record, and we didn't want to put that out. It wasn't Mark being Mark -- that's what we liked."
Eitzel understands why no one bit. "I don't blame them, because [the demos] weren't completed," he says. "They were these half-assed, unfinished things. I wasn't happy with them either."
So he put together a band featuring ex-AMC guitarist Vudi, ex-Kinetics keyboardist Marc Capelle and bassist Kristin Sobditch, recorded more demos, and sent them out. The only person who showed interest in funding completed versions was Jason Carmer, who had just made a mint producing Third Eye Blind. "Jason said, 'I'll do it and I'll pay for it because I have all this extra money and I need a tax write-off,'" Eitzel recalls. When Carmer had to excuse himself to work on other projects in December 1999, Eitzel decided to buy a computer, teach himself ProTools, and finish the album himself.
"I was never the boss in the studio, and now I am," Eitzel says. "In American Music Club, it was Vudi. In Silver Lining, I was the boss but I was a bad boss. For Caught in a Trap, the boss was money -- I didn't have any."
On The Invisible Man, Eitzel is thoroughly in charge. He plays most of the instruments and did all of the editing. He remixed a few of the previous demos and rerecorded several older songs, such as his first overtly gay number, "Steve I Always Knew." Stepping out on his own, he's come up with his strongest solo album to date -- a record that walks the line between the stubborn clamor of AMC and the attempted commerciality of his later work.
"I thought it was terrific and refreshing," Lombardi says, describing his early impressions of the new record. "It's a departure but it's also a return to the Warner Bros. period [of AMC's Mercury and San Francisco]."
At first listen, the looped samples, syncopated drum beats and synthesizer washes may seem wholly unsuited to Eitzel's gnarled voice and lyrics. Upon repeated listens, the disco thumps and synth swirls of "The Boy With the Hammer in the Paper Bag" fit snugly against Eitzel's tale of an illegal Mission District nightclub with drunks tap-dancing to Midnight Cowboy. "Steve" features a groovy sitar loop, and "Bitterness" floats on a bossa nova beat and a slithering synth part. Instead of sounding gratuitous, the electronic colorings add to the distinctiveness of the songs.
It helps that Eitzel's at his most restrained, like a teacher who realizes he can get the attention of his students better by whispering. "I wanted to do away with the histrionic bullshit, away with the melancholy everything," he says. "I stopped writing melancholy songs about my life. I had to. I don't know if that's because I'm just getting older or I need to find joy in my life."
On The Invisible Man, Eitzel sounds like he has something to live for. While the album includes a fair share of numbers about loss -- "Anything" is the latest in a long line of songs about his now-deceased ex-girlfriend Kathleen Burns -- there are also hopeful tunes like "Seeing-Eye Dog" and "Can You See?". The breezy "Christian Science Reading Room" is Eitzel at his most surreal and charming, as he relates how he once got so high that he thought he'd become a Christian Scientist. "Proclaim Your Joy" is a fluffy bit of pop riffage that recalls early Bruce Springsteen, both in its buoyant word-salad-ness and in the fact that it took five minutes to write. (When Springsteen wrote the songs for Born in the U.S.A., his manager didn't hear a hit; he went back into his room and spat out the title tune in a couple of minutes.)
The biggest irony of the album is that its electronic sound may appeal more to Everything But the Girl's audience than to Eitzel's own fans. "Fine, good, I'm glad! Because they buy shit," Eitzel says. Then he pauses. "Urban Outfitters or not, I'm pretty proud of this record. I'm proud of having learned how to do this."
Eitzel will get to see how the record fares during his current summer tour. In order to re-create the album's electronic sound when playing live, he's put together a group with Sobditch on bass, Brian Gregory on pedal steel, and Tipsy's Andrew Plourde on samples.
"With solo touring you can make a lot of money," he says. "But there's a real graveyard for songwriters that play solo acoustic; it's very much like the elephant graveyard, and I don't want to go there."