Friday, August 31, 2012

Album Review: Eels Retrospective

Album reviews are for, er, album reviews.  Honestly I'm not sure what you expect me to say in this header.  It's pretty self-explanatory.

I thought I'd kick off my album reviews by doing a retrospective of the band/artist Eels.  Because I feel like it.  I was originally going to do The Decemberists, but I think Eels have more obscure albums so I thought I'd do them instead.  Because why do one big review when you can do a bunch of teeny ones.

Artist Profile: Eels are the project of one Mark Oliver Everett, more commonly known as E.  Some Eels albums are E on his own, sometimes he works with a band.  To a lot of people, Eels are those guys who wrote Novocaine For The Soul and Last Stop: This Town and then vanished in the late 90s, but they/he's actually had a pretty long career, and his albums are pretty varied for an indie rocker.

Beautiful Freak
Gah!  Hello terrifyingly large-eyed child.

Beautiful Freak is the first Eels album, released in 1996.  It also contains the band's two most well-known songs: Novocaine For The Soul and Susan's House.  This album establishes the quirky dark indie rock that E loves so much, although it's a bit more straight-up indie rock than his later stuff. The sounds is perfectly captured in the off-beat dark-but-then-kind-of-cheery album opener Novocaine For The Soul, filled with weird sounds, infectious melodies, and lyrics about feeling distant from life.  The weirdness ante is upped with Susan's House, a primarily spoken word piece filled with samples and lyrics about E observing various dysfunctional people as he walks to his girlfriend's house.  Over all this is a good dark indie rock album, but the Eels surpassed it considerably quite quickly.
Key Tracks: Novocaine For The Soul, Susan's House, Beautiful Freak, My Beloved Monster.

Electro-shock Blues

In order to fully appreciate Electro-shock Blues you have to know some rather depressing backstory: Not long after Beautiful Freak was released, E's sister committed suicide.  Then, shortly after that, his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  After his mother's death, E would be left as the last member of his family (his father died when he was a teenager).  You might expect this album to be pretty depressing.  And it is, mostly.  But there's two key differences between Electro-shock Blues and your standard life sucks album: 1. Variety.  Many of the songs are from his sister's point of view, and the rest cover a range of subjects as opposed to just "Oh woe, my life sucks.  Waa" and 2. Progression.  By progression I mean it's really not so much about how E's all depressed as it is about his recovery.  The album almost has a story arc, from hopeless Elizabeth on The Bathroom Floor (a diary entry from one of his sister's failed suicide attempts), to the inner turmoil of Cancer For The Cure and Going To Your Funeral Part 1.  From there it switches back to Elizabeth's viewpoint with 3 Speed, a sad reflection on when things first started going wrong, and the spine-chillingly sad title track.  However, afterwards the album moves towards acceptance, with the triad of Efil's God (pronounced E Feels Good.  Also uses a sample from a previous song, Dog's Life, run backwards.  Hence the name), the instrumental Going To Your Funeral Part 2, and the infectious and surprisingly bouncy Last Stop: This Town. The climax is in Climbing To The Moon, a song about E visiting his sister at the mental hospital, and Dead of Winter, a song about him standing outside his mother's house and accepting her death.   The album closes with acceptance: The Medication Is Wearing Off and P.S. You Rock My World.  The album finally ends with the lyric, "Maybe it's time to live".

Daisies Of The Galaxy
If you're up for some rather silly controversy, look up the time George Bush claimed this album was corrupting the children.
So after Electro-shock Blues, it's time for something more cheerful, right?  Yes!  Well, sort of.  On the surface, Daisies of The Galaxy sounds way cheerier than the last album.  The opening song, Grace Kelly Blues, opens with a drum roll and some boisterous horns, before switching into some cheerful guitar strumming.  Except then the lyrics start, and E's singing about a couple of depressed people.  And then he ends the song with "I think, you know, I'll be okay".  In a way, this album continues charting E's recovery after Electro-shock Blues, though more abstractly.  The general feel is cheerful, but with a dark undertone that often surfaces, and some biting humor (the first two verses of Something Is Sacred, for example).  The album ends on the hidden track, Mr. E's Beautiful Blues (a single E didn't want on the album, but I think it fits), which basically sums up the album (and E in general)'s outlook: Yeah, life can be pretty horrible at times, but it's still beautiful.
Key Tracks: Grace Kelly Blues, Flyswatter, Daisy Through Concrete, Selective Memory, Mr. E's Beautiful Blues.

He claims the unibomber resemblance was unintentional.
Souljacker is my least favorite Eels albums.  In it, E moves his sound to a more rough punk sound, which I feels drags down the album as a whole.  Overall, the mellower sweeter songs work better on this album for me, and there are several really excellent songs.  This is E's first real stab at being a rocker, but he does it with more success on Hombre Lobo.  Souljacker's also notable for consisting primarily of stories about other people, instead of about E's internal stuff.
Key Tracks: Souljacker Part 1, Fresh Feeling, Souljacker Part 2, Woman Driving Man Sleeping.

Pitchfork gave this album a 2.8 out of 10...  Urge to kill... rising...
Shootenany is a made up portmanteau for a cheerful shooting spree.  And really that sums up this album.  It's still dark and cranky, but there's also more humor and light-heartedness to it.  This is the most spontaneous Eels album, it was dashed out quickly while working the next album, which is good and bad.  On the plus side it means that it's a bit more accessible than some of the other albums, often leaning more towards power pop, but on the minus side it means it's a bit uneven.  After you have all of the essential Eels albums, this is probably the next one I'd recommend.
Key Tracks: Saturday Morning, Dirty Girl, Love of The Loveless, Rock Hard Times.

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
I can't think of anything funny to say about this one.  Pretend there's a joke here.
Look, we finally reached my favorite album!  Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is E's magnum opus.  A sprawling, semi-conceptual double album.  It's also one of the mellowest Eels albums.  There are upbeat songs, but for the most part the tone if very reflective.  This is very much an "immersion" album, in that you need to listen to it all the way through a couple of times to really get it.  It's no mean task due to the length, but persevere and delve into it and you'll discover one of best albums in indie rock (along with Electro-shock Blues).
Key Tracks: Trouble With Dreams, Railroad Man, Mother Mary, Understanding Salesmen, Hey Man (Now You're Really Living), Whatever Happened To Soy Bomb, Losing Streak, Things The Grandchildren Should Know.

Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire
This album was partially inspired by E's beard, as displayed on the cover.  Hombre Lobo means wolf man.  It's also partially a sequel to Dog Faced Boy from Souljacker.
Hombre Lobo is the first of a conceptual trilogy of relationship-related albums.  As you can probably tell from the title, Hombre Lobo is about pre-relationship desire.  The sound on this album is much more straightforward than the lushness of Blinking Lights, mostly consisting of acoustic ballads and blues rock.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about this album is the way the format helps the concept: It essentially alternates by song between dirty, growly, blues rock songs (Fresh Blood, Tremendous Dynamite, What's A Fella Gotta Do) and more earnest, vulnerable ballads (The Look You Give That Guy, The Longing, My Timing Is Off).  Even the ending has both a cheery rocky song (Beginner's Luck) and sadder ballad (Ordinary Man) to close it off.  I wouldn't consider this an essential album, but it has some excellent songs on it, and it's worth it to check out a rockier Eels.
Key Tracks: Prizefighter, Lilac Breeze, My Timing Is Off, Beginner's Luck.

End Times
This is one of those covers that tells you exactly what to expect from the album.
This is probably E's most internal and personal album since Electro-shock Blues.  (Not) coincidentally, it's also one of his most depressing.  If Hombre Lobo was the pre-relationship desire, End Times picks up after the relationship has ended in disaster, and E is left ragged and broken, with the songs mostly being about loneliness and aging.  Cheery stuff.  In fact, in some ways, it's harder to listen to than Electro-shock Blues, as it's sometimes even more candind (A Line In The Dirt).  Musically we see much more of a stripped-down acoustic feel, with some country inflections.  Although it has some excellent standout tracks (check out the country rock of Gone Man), it can feel like a bit of a slog to get through.  Still, even through all of the strife and pain on this album, it manages to end with a pained optimism in On My Feet, vaguely reminiscent of P.S. You Rock My World in sentiment.
Key Tracks: Gone Man, Mansions of Los Feliz, Little Bird, On My Feet.

Tomorrow Morning
Two years without an album since this makes me sad.  Especially since the trilogy was released over 14 months.
Tomorrow Morning is the last part of the trilogy, focused on redemption and actual optimism.  This album's a bit of an oddball in the catalogue.  For one thing, it's very electronic.  Although there are still actual drums and guitar, the songs are filled with electronic textures.  It works surprisingly well to create a feeling of intimate warmth, though it took me a while for it grow on me.  Secondly, this album is by far the most optimistic thing ever produced by Eels.  This is another album that's pretty mellow and warm.  This is an album for a quiet Sunday morning, not for running around punching Nazis or whatever you do in your free time.  And this album contains some the most absolutely beautiful songs E has ever written (What I Have To Offer, I'm A Hummingbird, Spectacular Girl).  That's not to say it's totally flat though, there are a couple of more upbeat songs (the self-deprecatingly funny Baby Loves Me, and the supremely goofy The Man) as well.  This album took a while to grow on me, but once I did I discovered a very excellent, intimate album.
Key Tracks: Baby Loves Me, What I Have To Offer, Oh So Lovely, Mystery Of Life.

Overall Album Preference: Blinking Lights > Electro-shock Blues > Daisies Of The Galaxy > Tomorrow Morning > Shootenanny! > Beautiful Freak > Hombre Lobo > End Times > Souljacker.

So, that's it.  Whew.  Retrospective done.  Next time I'll do a single album review, any suggestions for the album?

Oh, and protip: Even if you don't like the music, I highly recommend picking up E's autobiography Things The Grandchildren Should Know.  He's a good writer and he's had a really interesting life.


  1. A wonderful choice for your retrospective. I came to Eels via "Daisies of The Galaxy" and while it took me a few listens to "get" it I was eventually hooked. Now I have been hunting down the rest and loving them all, though some are a bit rough going. :)

    1. Thanks. :) Yeah, Eels are one of those artists whose every album is a "grower". I found Tomorrow Morning boring and weird the first time I listened to it, but now it's one of my favorite "non-essential" (i.e. not Electro-shock, Daisies, or Blinking Lights) Eels albums. Daisies of The Galaxy is probably one of their most accessible though, and is also excellent.

      *Oh, and note to readers: Tomorrow I'll go over this and add Youtube links to all the key tracks.

    2. Speaking of which, it may be worth looking up the censored version of It's A Motherfucker: It's A Monstertrucker. It's exactly the same song, but with E intoning "Monstertrucker" over the offending word. It's kind of amusing.