In 1995, Eels were on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough with their Brit Award-winning debut album Beautiful Freak, featuring the MTV/alternative radio hit “Novocaine for the Soul”, a deceptive song of despair wrapped up in an infectious pop melody and cleverly shiny production. But watching the band’s curious frontman E (short for Mark Oliver Everett)—a doppelganger for another alt-nerd hip horn-rimmed-glassed ace, Weezer songster Rivers Cuomo—we had the feeling that he was just too smart to give us a career of easy pop hits. And we were right.
I first encountered the music of Mr. E and his Eels bartending in some dive during a summer vacation in Portugal. It was no secret that I only took the job to have more control over the bar tunes (my inability to understand the Portuguese of the local female patrons impaired the more obvious draw of the gig). Straight away, I picked up Beautiful Freak from the back shelf. How could I resist that odd cover, with that a spooky (digitally altered) picture of a young girl with massive alien-like eyes? The music proved no less original. Co-produced with the brilliant Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple), the album mixed E’s retro Wurlitzer electric piano with alternative electric guitar and a straightforward bass and drum section that drew apt analogies to Beck in his funkier days. What really set this album apart, though, were E’s droll offbeat lyrics and downright catchy pop melodies. What else would you expect from a songwriter with a publishing company named Sexy Grandpa Music?
Years later, a friend brought Eels’ second album along on another summer vacation in Aspen (I know, I get around). Expecting more of the band’s unique alternative pop flavor, Electro-Shock Blues was a surprise. Written in the midst of personal anguish, the album is a brutally honest musical diary that unflinchingly addresses his father’s recent death, his sister’s mental illness and subsequent suicide, and his mother’s terminal illness. Heavy. But also brilliant. Far from morbid, the production is fresh and alive with E’s collage of live band loops and funky instrumentation, and the results are on par with Lou Reed’s epic Magic and Loss and Neil Young’s dark Tonight’s the Night as the best rock/pop music can offer about illness, death, and redemption. But let’s face it, titles like “Cancer for the Cure” and “Going to Your Funeral” don’t sell records.
So E returned with a more carefree record, cheekily titled Daisies of the Galaxy. From the bright opening strums of his small acoustic guitar on the first track, you knew things were much lighter in E’s world. The humor was back with playful acoustic pop songs like the simple “I Like Birds”. Stowed away in his new home studio, E also continued to indulge his production fancy (with the help of Michael Simpson, one half of the legendary Dust Brothers), complementing the largely acoustic tonal palette with a smattering of samples and other surprises like the New Orleans Salvation Army-style brass section interspersed on the poignant “Grace Kelly Blues” and the full live orchestra strings on the equally touching soft piano ballad, “It’s a Motherf#&!@r”.
In retrospect, it was perhaps for the best that the Eels’ fourth album—released in September, 2001—never quite hit the public radar, with its unfortunate (but coincidental) title, Souljacker, and cover photo of a fully bearded E dressed up as the infamous Ted Kazinsky holding a white poodle. A more collaborative songwriting effort, the album seemed to retreat once again from E’s natural pop instincts. And although the eclectic sound snippets and instrumentation were interesting, I couldn’t help but wish for a bit more of E’s distinct songcraft. With Eels’ latest studio album, Shootenanny!, I got it.
Two things set this album apart. First, it is not a concept album. Instead, it is just a collection of songs—an easy and disparate batch of new songs. Second, although the band continues to be E’s vision, he returns to the sound of a live band. Right off the bat, E and his fuzzed out electric guitar stomp through his own brand of Muddy Waters’s blues on the verse of “All in a Day’s Work”. The chorus really opens up with the Stax-sound horns droning behind E’s usual crispy close-mic vocals. And on the second track, “Saturday Morning”, Eels seem to have shed their moody shell in favor of a downright rollicking rock and roll band, complete with E’s falsetto chorus over a driving backbeat and no-frills rhythm guitar. Just another chapter of the Eels sound constantly in flux, which is nicely set off by occasional echoes of Daisies of the Galaxy, such as the casually strummed small acoustic guitar and string section of “The Good Old Days”.
Lyrically, E is always good for an offbeat lyric or two, like his proclamation to open another high energy track, “Dirty Girl”: “I like a girl with a dirty mouth / Someone that I can believe”. And even on Eels’ feel-good albums, there is always a touch of self-inflicted psychotherapy, as on the brooding “Agony”, which begins “Am I going to be all right? No, I’m not gonna be all right / Nothing is all right now”. The oddly non-depressing “Somebody Loves You” features the uplifting thoughts, “This nagging malaise / Is more than a phase / It feels like a job / But no boss ever pays you to lay there / And think how you’ll die”. But the real gem of this collection is “Restraining Order Blues”, the latest in E’s long progeny of “blues”-titled songs. On this soft ballad, E demonstrates his Randy Newman-like touch for delivering a humorous tongue-in-cheek lyric with nothing short of genuine sentimentality: “Everybody knows that I’m not a violent man / Just someone who knows he’s in love”.
Stay tuned. Over the past eight years, as pop music has grown more static, Mr. E and his Eels have quietly evolved, and, along the way, churned out consistently interesting and compelling albums. It may not all be novocaine for the soul, but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?