I don’t know about you, but I’m already looking forward to the inevitable VH-1 I Love the ‘90s series.
What I liked best about the nineties, or the mid-to-late ‘90s anyway, was the way that every radio station with the letter “X” in its call letters milked every last dime from the powerful brand name “Alternative.” Band after mediocre band was signed in hopes of producing a Nirvana-esque payoff, only to result in a teeming glut of middling one-hit-wonders whose time in the limelight barely reached 14:59 before they were exiled to used CD bins across America.
If you think hard, you can remember the songs. “Not an Addict” by K’s Choice. “Tattva” by Kula Shaker. “Popular” by Nada Surf. “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods. Each of them an ever-diminishing speck of dust of in the vast, unsympathetic pop music universe. But why?
Now, say what you want about us music snobs, but we have one thing that you can’t deny: loyalty. And that’s an invaluable commodity to an up-and-coming band. The problem back then was that snobs like myself quickly got into the habit of writing off major label one-hit-wonders as copycats of the guys who did it better without selling out. I mean, why listen to Nada Surf when you could listen to Pavement? Such bands made it big, but they sacrificed their credibility in doing so. They may have sold millions to the white baseball cap crowd, but as soon as Johnny Collegeboy grew tired of “Sex and Candy”, the members of Marcy Playground were stuck looking for day jobs.
Yet, a small number of bands fought through it. Of those bands, the Eels may be the best example. If you remember, they had a reasonably big hit with “Novocaine for the Soul”. At the time, at least to me, there was little difference between them and Dog’s Eye View. But Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett (or E., as he likes to call himself) turned out to be more than just a guy in the right place in the right time. Although he hasn’t replicated the commercial success of “Novocaine” (and he won’t), he has built a faithful fan base.
The point? Mostly, this is just a long-winded way of explaining my Johnny-come-lately status with the Eels. When my girlfriend bought Souljacker last year, I was all, “Those guys are still around?” When she played it, I was like, “Those guys aren’t too bad after all.”
When the Eels came to the Vogue last Thursday night, they gave an explanation for their unlikely success in the form of a scorching set of rockabilly, off-kilter pop, and a few poignant, hangdog ballads. But before the Eels took the stage the crowd was treated to a brief set by MC Honky. If you’re a hardcore Eels fan, then you already know that Mr. Honky is not actually an MC, but instead a mysterious, reclusive DJ who is somehow connected to the Eels. The consensus is that it’s an E side project, and the MC Honky moniker is just a goofy alter ego. However, when the lights went down and MC Honky emerged, it wasn’t a masquerading E who took the stage. Rather, a chubby, bespectacled, pipe-smoking gentleman wearing a press hat and a cardigan lumbered slowly forward, taking his place behind two decks and a mixing board. Once situated, he began spinning records with a disconcerting deliberateness. The beats and melodies were tight, but the crowd was too caught up in silent bewilderment to do any dancing. About twenty minutes into the set, MC Honky stopped the records and walked impassively from the stage, offering not so much as a tip of his hat to the audience.
Next, the stage was overtaken by three men wearing ketchup red polyester outfits. There stood John Parish (guitar), Butch (drums), and the charmingly named Kool G Murder (bass). E was nowhere to be found. The men collectively assumed an inexpressive, stone-like posture and kicked into a riff-heavy groove when, out of nowhere, the squeal of a harmonica burst from the speakers. The spotlight trained toward the balcony, where E, wearing street clothes and dark sunglasses, was making his way toward the stage.
The showmanship of the Eels surprised me. From a band that is known as a mostly one-man thing, I wasn’t expecting the tightness, the chemistry, or the unadulterated rock and roll energy that they brought. From the beginning, they had the crowd, which was an unexpected mix of hippies, young professionals, and scenesters, grooving and singing along. They breezed through the beginning of their set, which was heavy on rockabilly, and included a raucous cover of the early Beatles self-loathing classic “I’m a Loser”.
E is notorious for being surly, but he was surprisingly cool with the audience. He spent a lot of time talking, stopping after the first few songs to ask, “Are you ready to not rock?” Later, referring to his reputation for gloominess, he told the audience: “A lot of people say things to me like, ‘Mister E, why are you so sad?’ Well, I wanna tell you people, I’m not sad tonight. Because if there’s one thing Mister E likes more than talking about himself in the first person, it’s playing rock and roll music.”
The moment could have been a send-up of Jon Spencer doing his faux-Elvis thing, but E’s sentiments seemed genuine. Even through the performance of downer tracks like “Rock Hard Times” during the encore, the Eels came off as a band that is happy and having fun, and couldn’t care less about critical and commercial success anymore. Back in 1996, E was worried about sputtering out. These days, even if he did, I don’t think he’d mind all that much.