EELS Daisies Of The Galaxy (Bong Load)

The man called E's third long player under the Eels banner finally makes it to vinyl thanks to the efforts of Bong Load, who also responsible for bringing the works of Elliot Smith and Beck to the black stuff. Last time around Mark Everett fashioned the exquisite morbid visions of the tellingly-titled "Electro-Shock Blues", a bittersweet (mostly bitter) requiem for his late mother (who died from cancer) and suicidal sister. Almost thankfully, "Daisies Of The Galaxy" lines up as his big pop album.

All things being relative, of course. Certainly the music and the melodies are notably upbeat, inviting favourable comparisons with other near-solo travellers Beck and Badly Drawn Boy at their jauntiest, possibly crossed with a soupcon of Carpenters or Bread-style MOR fairy dust and a knowing nudge and wink. However, unlike the aforementioned E utilises such superficial frivolity as the spoonful of sugar that helps make his lyrical bromine just about palatable. He sings about lives lost to McJobs, the empty end of relationships, dashed hopes, ageing vagrants and buying a dead rock star's ashes from the back of Rolling Stone. It seems significant that the most upbeat song, both musically and lyrically ("Goddamn right, it's a beautiful day", reads the chorus), is an untitled coda tagged onto the end of the album, just like The Clash hid "Train In Vain" away on the end of "London Calling" in case their punk fans thought they'd gone soft by writing a love song. (Post review note: it turns out that this hidden tune is actually the single "Mr E's Beautiful Blues"…) Credit junkies will also be pleased to note guest appearances by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Grant Lee (Buffalo) Phillips.

The sweet tune/sour sentiment trick isn't exactly a novel one - past and present practitioners include the excellent likes of The Smiths and Black Box Recorder - but "Daisies Of The Galaxy" is a welcome addition to a select canon. It won't blind you with science or deafen you with sonic trickery, it doesn't claim to be a contemporary cultural melting pot or act as a portal into its creator's head, but I have a feeling it's an album that will maintain its stature when interest in many of this year's 15 minute wonders has long evaporated.

EELS Souljacker (Dreamworks)

If you ignore the fact that dressing up as the Unabomber isn't the most sensitive publicity stunt a musician could pull in these times, "Souljacker" is as deftly-assembled a box of delights as anything the man called E has yet put his name to. It takes a while to get going - the opening two tracks "Dog Faced Boy" and "That's Not Really Funny" are probably the most arduous songs in the Eels catalogue, grinding, bluff intense things that offer little listener reward. But then follows "Fresh Feeling", which is absolutely adorable, rolling along on a string sample from their own "Selective Memory" and propelled by some fingerpoppingly funky drum programming, it reminds you that Eels' love songs are rendered all the more startling by the oceans of depravity and disappointment that surround them. On "Souljacker" Mark Everett plays like Nick Cave stalking the childhood subconscious of little America: we have tales of witches, ghosts, troubled schooldays, incest and teenage prostitution. Whatever the alternately sweet and sour soundtrack might suggest, these are far from being pop songs.

Elsewhere "Woman Driving, Man Sleeping" is a wistful blank celebration of the big country and the spaces between places, and "What Is This Note?" surfs in on a torrential squall of Velvet noise before evolving into a thrashy, punk song tonally and totally at odds with its heartfelt and romantic new dawn imagery. Aside from Mark Everett and his regular partner drummer Butch, other key collaborators include P J Harvey associate John Parish, who co-writes and co-produces, and one Koool G Murder, who receives equal billing. There are also some deeply tongue-in-cheek sleevenotes by Brooklyn resident rap artiste DJ Killingspree, whoever he may or may not be, the likes of which haven't been seen around here since Tristan Fabriani's ludicrous back cover hype on Steely Dan's "Can't Buy A Thrill".

As it says on the 60s-styled sleeve artwork above pictures of the band's back catalogue, "If you've enjoyed this recording…you're sure to like these other great albums", and of course the converse is also true. If you've clicked with Eels at any point during their career, rest assured they're still exploring the parts other rock bands wouldn't go near with Marigolds on.

EELS Shootenanny! (spinART/Dreamworks)

shootenanny.jpg (10472 bytes)Perhaps mindful of the fact that, in retrospect, rocking the Unabomber look for the "Souljacker" album in the weeks before what we now know as 9/11 probably wasn't the wisest of promotional gambits, this time around E is taking no chances. Maybe the simple black cover that houses the fifth Eels long player "Shootenanny!" is a gesture of atonement or remembrance. It certainly doesn't feel like inappropriate garb for a collection of songs that harbour no mythical rock 'n' roll dreams, but just articulate and celebrate the struggle of the everyday.

This is possibly the simplest music E has yet recorded: these songs are fuzzy, clipped, distorted, insistent, melodies that throb like a distant ache. If I can call it lo-fi without invoking the spectre of some side-long multi-part Stereolab epic then lo-fi it is. "Little kids go out to play/They're just happy it’s another day", he observes during "The Good Old Days", whilst "Restraining Order Blues" features the tragic, horrorshow chorus line "Everybody knows I'm not a violent man". Bluff and blunt musically, melodically and lyrically, these songs don't hang around long enough to accumulate moss or flab: even the album's most good day sunshine moment, "Rock Hard Times", supplies the album's strapline "Everybody knows these are rock hard times". The finest few minutes, in this company, must be "Numbered Days", a low-budget meeting of minds between the luxuriant twilit misery of Beck's "Sea Change" album and the chugging, metronomic insistence of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark's "Of All The Things We've Made".

"Shootenanny!" is a curiously reductive album, one that, no matter how you approach it, always seems to appear to be less than the sum of its parts. There are fine tunes and smart lyrics, but the whole seems to cower in a corner, determined to stay under its bushel. (The image of a heavily sedated Luke Haines suggests itself.) Conventional as it appears, it might still be the farthest Eels have travelled from rock 'n' roll.

EELS Blinking Lights And Other Revelations (Vagrant)

If the last few Eels albums have found the man called E becoming increasingly embittered and pugilistic, “Blinking Lights And Other Revelations” is where he reclaims his bejewelled pop crown, via the somewhat unlikely medium of a double concept album substantially pieced together in the artist’s basement over several years, concerning itself with “God and all the questions related to the subject of God”. At this point, most reviews of the album will remind the reader that E’s mother died of cancer, his sister committed suicide and his cousin was a passenger on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

Somewhat unexpectedly, then, these 33 tracks are awash with Brian Wilson-esque craftsmanship, each one striving for perfection in its miniature way. There’s also a smattering of subtle but important guest appearances, including co-writers Peter Buck and an autoharp-wielding John Sebastian, and howlin’ Tom Waits.

Take “Son Of A Bitch” as a random example – it’s the primal scream of John Lennon’s “Mother”, as scripted by Randy Newman. One of the album’s smattering of recurring themes, “Blinking Lights (For Me)” (subtitled “or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Airplanes, Car Accidents, and Psychic Pain”) sounds pleasantly like campfire Sparklehorse. There’s at least a drop of Gram Parsons in the weeping steel of “Railroad Man”, and a definite soul revue vibe to “Going Fetal” and the handclappin’ pocket pop of “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)”. “Sweet Li’l Thing” is sweet-natured, gently swaying synthesised funk, and “Ugly Love” wraps up almost Morrissey-like levels of self-deprecation in the ostensibly saccharine coating of a piano ballad. A booklet peppered with sepia family photographs amps up the intimacy.

“Blinking Lights And Other Revelations” has the conceptual sweep of Prefab Sprout’s "Jordan: The Comeback”, whilst bettering anything Paddy McAloon’s crew have offered in almost a decade. Perhaps as a whole it adds up to something less than the sum of its considerable parts, but individually these songs are a masterclass in soul-bearing 21st century chamber-pop.

EELS Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall (Vagrant)

Neither a straight greatest hits set nor an orthodox live album, on “Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall” the man called E rearranges his (mainly recent) past for string quartet and unorthodox ensemble (instrumentation employed includes celeste, pump organ, trash can, suitcase, saw, lap steel, mandolin, melodica, upright bass, autoharp and vibrator). The result is a conspicuous success, each song emerging as an ornate chamber pop delight, a bitter dark chocolate with a fondant centre.

That cover looks more like a 1965 folk gig flyer than a 2006 album sleeve, and there’s a similar economical brevity to the music it houses. 22 songs breeze by in little more than an hour, the vast majority only as long as they need to be. “Bride Of The Theme From Blinking Lights” plays like a musical box miniature, “Dirty Girl” is all country ‘n’ western ache. One of few songs to employ percussive embellishment, “Trouble With Dreams” breaks down to all manner of shaken and hit things. “My Beloved Monster” (“…and me/We go everywhere together/Wearing a raincoat that has four sleeves”) lays bare and unvarnished the cute/scary dichotomy that lurks at the heart of much of Eels’ music. E’s slightly husky, hoarse vocals jar slightly against the wedding cake ornamentation of a cover of “Pretty Ballerina”, and “Flyswatter” tumbles from Swiss watch precision to avant garde string sawing, before merging into their big pop hit, “Novocaine For The Soul”, stoically resigned and dragging its feet. Equally unexpected, and perhaps a conscious echo of that cover design, is a lovely cover of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country”, and “Poor Side Of Town” sounds so much like an Eels original that it’s a shock to discover it’s actually a Johnny Rivers tune. “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” laces hyper-pop with country fiddling, and closer “Things The Grandchildren Should Know” is a bundle of stumbling loveliness.

“Eels With Strings: Live At Town Hall” might not be a perfect album – listened to intensely the sound betrays a slightly distorted roughness on occasion, starkly at odds with the care and precision shown in virtually every other aspect of its conception – but it moves deftly, combining pop nous and startling arrangements. Seasoned Eels fans should adore it, beginners will be rightly intrigued.

EELS The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester 27 February 2008

“Plus special guests”, it clearly stated on the ticket, but as the lights dimmed bang on showtime it became apparent that not even the standard issue Bridgewater Hall support act of an acoustic guitar-toting lady singer songwriter would be able to perform in the slim gap in front of the large, somewhat rumpled and grubby white sheet that hid the stage. What we got instead was a screening of BBC4’s recent “Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives” documentary, following chief Eel Mark Everett (mostly known as E) in his quest to uncover the truth about the late father he hardly knew, and to understand his ground-breaking work on quantum mechanics (he discovered the theory of parallel universes, basically). Fascinating stuff, especially for the benefit of those of us without televisions, although my usual front row perch meant extreme neck ache staring up at the screen a few feet away and many yards up for the best part of an hour.

The main feature was rather more musical – well, mostly. There was scripted comedy via the occasional God-like pronouncement from the disembodied Voice In The Speakers, E read what we were lead to believe were recent fan letters and concert reviews in an attempt to “feel good about myself”, and multi-instrumental sidekick The Chet treated us to a few chapters from E’s “bestselling autobiography”. (“Is there one?”, I’ve written in my hastily scrawled notes, and sure enough there is – “Things The Grandchildren Should Know”, basking in an abundance of rave reviews on Amazon, quite deservedly if the extracts aired tonight were typical.)

Mainly, though, there were songs, and, given how brief most of E’s vignettes of depression and dysfunction are, there were lots of them, from big hits (“Novocaine Through The Soul”, sung as if through clenched teeth) to obscurities (recently rendered less so via inclusion on the mammoth “Useless Trinkets” compilation) such as “Funeral Parlor” and “I Want To Protect You” and covers (“Girl From The North Country”, “Good Times Band Times”). Many tunes were recast White Stripes style as guitar/percussion tussles – I’ve never experienced the splintering power of a drum kit struck with steady, methodical power up so close before – but there was also an orchestra of tonal colouring and shading from pedal steel, bowed saw, celeste, harmonium and piano. During “Flyswatter” E and The Chet performed their party trick of exchanging instruments (percussion and piano) twice, without missing a beat.

There’s probably only so much exquisitely performed self-loathing an audience can take in one evening, and at 85 minutes Eels’ set was just about on the right side of that divide: at times it was almost like unwrapping a bunch of fortune cookies inlaid with dire proclamations. Strangely, the audience response appeared to halt abruptly after a few seconds following each song, as if they were entertaining but ultimately disposable trifles rather than raw, bleeding chunks of the man’s soul being offered up. This air of restraint held the evening back slightly, but it certainly wasn’t a disappointment; more of a bitter pill, albeit a delicately sweetened one.

EELS Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities And Unreleased: 1996-2006 (Geffen/Universal)

Behind that typically self-deprecating title, “Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities And Unreleased: 1996-2006” is a trove. It contains 50 tracks on two crammed CDs, a further six songs excerpted from Eels’ 2006 Lollapalooza performance on a DVD and a chunky booklet overflowing with ephemera, reminiscences and a note from Beatles producer Giles Martin!

 Setting out its stall immediately as an anti-“Greatest Hits” (if it’s the singles you seek head directly for the simultaneously released “Meet The Eels: Essential Eels Volume 1”), the first disc opens with a Live From Hell (possibly not literally, although given the depths of E’s tortured soul you never know) take of “Novocaine For The Soul”. These songs aren’t slapdash cash-in filler, though; they’re almost all exquisite sweet/sour miniatures, with the utmost care and attention lavished on their creation. There’s very little here that wouldn’t snuggle happily up to a proper Eels album, with even the sketchiest songs fleshed out just as much as they need to be. For example, a BBC session version of “Manchester Girl” is just a piano, a horn solo and some words, but if the spirit of Randy Newman is currently operational anywhere outside the body of Randy Newman, well, it might be here.

 One advantage of writing such skeletal songs is that they can be twisted and pulled into all sorts of new and exciting shapes. “My Beloved Monster” appears here in three different guises, for example: in another BBC recording, “My Beloved Mad Monster Party”, it sounds like its being covered by a Southern soul band, and “My Beloved Monstrosity” remakes it as Bacharachian loungecore. A Moog Cookbook remix of “Novocaine For The Soul”, on the other hand, is all vocoders and car alarms. “Stepmother” is one of E’s acerbic, pithy character studies, lashed together by a basement orchestra of toy pianos and wheezing keyboards. A live cover of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” arrives drenched in feedback, Jesus And Mary Chain-style – it’s brilliant, of course. “Funeral Parlor” is a fragile thing, almost like eavesdropping on a distracted mind, yet on “Hospital Food” threatening lyrics cut through the party atmosphere. The cheery, childish, breakfast table-inspired nonsense of “Vice President Fruitley” gives way to a subtle, effective live cover of “Dark End Of The Street”. The latter emphasises how nuanced and colourful E’s concert arrangements can be – hardly a surprise after the “With Strings: Live At Town Hall” album, of course.

The Hollies’ “Jennifer Eccles” is covered in a hesitant, endearing fashion, as is a piano/vocal “Can’t Help Falling In Love”. Some of these performances aren’t so much songs as windows on a troubled psyche, chief amongst them “Eyes Down”, with its persecuted, downtrodden citizen protagonist, and “Sad Foot Sign”, a shruggingly resigned OCD ballad. “I Like Birds” is represented by a live version in the style ofThe Stooges (less the collateral damage, maybe), and a brilliant With Strings version of “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” will surely have most sensible listeners yearning for an Eels interpretation of Prince’s “Sign ‘O’ The Times” album in its entirey. “Jelly Dancers” is one of the set’s rare missteps: a cover of a song by childrens’ songwriter Bruce Haack, there’s something sinister and disquieting about it, like seeing Butthole Surfers guesting on “Sesame Street” or sump’n. “I Want To Protect You” is strummy and sweet in a “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” fashion, then, in one of the set’s many instant mood changes, a live “I Put A Spell On You” follows, as blood-curdlingly unhinged as the tune demands. Finally, “Saw A UFO” is at the pinnacle of Eels’ sensitive, ornate pop music and sounds as if it should really have found a home on the epic “Blinking Lights And Other Revelations” double album.

Then there’s the DVD, on which they play up to, or perhaps satirize, the expectations of a Lollapalooza audience, presenting a heavily bearded and tattooed hard-rocking iteration of the band. Noisy, distorted and shouty, E’s melodic gifts are mostly trampled on in relentless pursuit of the rawk. Oh, and there’s a big bloke in a t-shirt emblazoned with the legend Security who works out during the songs and feeds the front rows aerosol cream. “My Beloved Monster” flashes past in a blur of punked-up R&B but “Not Ready Yet” is bloated into an interminable grunge behemoth, its 15 minute duration soaking up half the disc, a swampland of solos and indulgence. Performance and content finally coalesce on “Souljacker Part 1”, a hard-edged travelogue through a troubled America, on which the band come across as a mini-Motorhead, of all things.

So, an almost perfect collection, then. If it were me in charge, I would’ve ensured that the booklet contained unambiguous information about the provenance of each song, but otherwise “Useless Trinkets” is a fantastic, bargainatious deep trawl through Eels history. If you’re a curious beginner, why not buy it instead of “Meet The Eels”? At least it won’t become redundant as your Eels collection grows, as it most surely will after you hear this.

EELS / ALICE GOLD Manchester Academy 4 September 2010

 

The evening’s baffling opening act is an unnamed gentleman who mixes non-comedy, blues karaoke and ventriloquism into a whole that’s about as much the antithesis of entertainment as Safi Sniper’s hellish audio-visual locked grooves that too often preface The Fall’s appearance on stage. Somewhat better is Alice Gold, a feisty lady with an electric guitar whose music suggests a less countrified Lucinda Williams. When invited by one particularly enlightened concertgoer to “Show us yer tits” she responds with a curt “Fuck off”. Good for her.

               

The last Eels gig I attended (at the Bridgewater Hall in 2008) found the band in duo configuration, with mainstay E sharing multi-instrumental duties with The Chet. Tonight they’re swelled to a quintet  - what E describes as a “guitar trifecta”  lineup – whose membership includes such legendary sleevenote luminaries as bassist Koool G Murder. Sartorially, with their beards, sunglasses and suits they’re channelling both The Blues Brothers and ZZ Top.

               

The setlist draws heavily from the trio of concept albums the band have released during the last 18 months, “Hombre Lobo”, “End Times” and “Tomorrow Morning”, these newer songs being interspersed with covers and classics. “I Like Birds” is recast as hardcore punk and “My Beloved Monster” wears not a raincoat that has four sleeves but the kind of funk-rock that could’ve torched frat house parties in the mid-1970s. Like something from “I’m Sorry I Haven’t  A Clue”’s “One Song To The Tune Of Another” round, “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” is performed to the rhythms and harmonies of “Twist And Shout”, a particular apposite delight given that I’m wearing my new Beatles t-shirt.

               

Documenting the quintet’s awesome rawk power, “Tremendous Dynamite”’s empirical primal thump is almost as Black as the earliest Sabbath. “Souljacker, Part 1” is similarly astonishing, a masterclass in how to ratchet the tension in a room up to breaking point using only maracas and a distended feedback drone.

 

There are a couple of moments of unnerving prescience. Just when I’m thinking what excellent garage rockers they make they launch into an appropriately snotty cover of The Rolling Stones’ “She Said Yeah”. (A garagey thrash through the Gershwin tune “Summertime”, bristling with false endings, underlines this later.) As the guy standing in front of me settles the debate as to whether I’ve come over all feverish or it really is unbearably sweltery in the sold out Academy by removing his t-shirt the band play a fine “Summer In The City” (where, let us recall, it’s “hotter than a match head”).

 

Great songs well played, a few surprise covers and even the acoustics in this alternabarn conspire favourably to make things sound very good. Aside from that dubious first act and the baking heat it’s a fabulous night out.

EELS Transmissions Session 2009 (E Works)

An uncharacteristic exercise in fan-fleecing by the man called E, “Transmissions Session 2009” collates half-a-dozen spare guitar-or-piano remakes of Eels songs old (“My Beloved Monster” is trotted out fort the nth time), new (four moments recast from then-current long player “Hombre Lobo”), borrowed (Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country” is covered) and, uh, that’s it. Conceptually similar to Peel Sessions, these MySpace Transmission Sessions tracks can apparently be downloaded for free, which is especially galling news to anybody who’s paid 19 for the privilege of owning them on a gramophone-friendly format. Still, with barely 18 minutes of music spread over two 12” sides, it should sound brilliant…shouldn’t it? Um, no; in common with other recent Eels vinyl, high levels of surface noise and an occasional rough, sandpapery distorted edge curtail the listening experience. As a bonus disc appended at no extra cost to a proper album, “Transmissions Session 2009” might just about pass muster. As a standalone release it’s a singularly unamusing joke.

EELS Tomorrow Morning (E Works)

The third in a loosely-themed trio of albums reflecting on love lost and gained, the thin-skinned passive aggression E demonstrates on “Tomorrow Morning” might not be for everybody, but at times arguably comes as close to anybody has to being this millennium’s Nick Drake. It’s an album with a split personality, though: for all its gently twinkling, musical box electronica and cautious lyrical uplift, E’s voice slumps throughout like Eeyore toting a heavy load, even on the rapturous (relatively) big production numbers.

“Baby Loves Me” and “The Man” are valedictory, upbeat and amusing, almost blues-like in sentiment if not in style. In places like these “Tomorrow Morning” is less a record and more a defiant self-help session. The gentle, cautious optimism of “Spectacular Girl” and “This Is Where It Gets Good” are touching in their way, but “What I Have To Offer” treads a fine line between refreshing candour and emotional open heart surgery. “Looking Up” is curiously hollowed-out, soulless gospel which, with its distant piano and reverberant handclaps, sounds like it was recorded in an empty school gymnasium.

This is an album you have to engage with and meet more than halfway. It’s worth the effort, though, because there are some fragrant miniatures here. Slight but sweet, it’s full of the dewy hope of new romance, tempered by the naturally guarded nature of a soul that’s been battered too often in the past.

On vinyl “Tomorrow Morning” arrives with a bonus 7” EP containing four songs that presumably don’t fit with the main feature’s concerns. Weirdly worthwhile, they’re more akin to traditional Eels material, whatever that may be – perverse, perky outsider pop, at a guess – and feature acoustic guitars far more prominently than the album itself does. On vinyl “Tomorrow Morning” also arrives with a shockingly poor pressing, with crackly surfaces and flimsy, warp-prone vinyl.

Mark Oliver Everett

Home