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"I guess that my goal is to make the kind of music that George Jones and Billie Holiday made, something that's like an aspirin that you can stick in your pocket and take whenever you want," American Music Club singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel has explained.

That's a heady challenge, but Eitzel comes breathtakingly close to meeting it in this album--a major-label debut by a San Francisco quintet that is often extraordinary in both its fearless originality and dazzling craft.

The tone of "Mercury" is closer to the moody rock found in the darker moments of Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin and Elvis Costello than in the country of Jones or the jazz of Holiday. However, there is a parallel sense of intensity as Eitzel searches the interiors of the soul in ways that are frequently extreme but that rarely feel manufactured or false.

Eitzel, who brings the group to the Troubadour on Thursday, Bogart's on Friday and the Casbah on Saturday, isn't incapable of wit or flashes of absurdity. Try this for a song title: "What Godzilla Said to God When His Name Wasn't Found in the Book of Life." And check the playful surrealism of "Johnny Mathis' Feet."

But his primary focus is confronting one's most terrifying demons and doubts--an exercise in courage that, he suggests, may be the only door to freedom from the personal chains that bind.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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