A Buyers Guide to Eels

Eels are a band that too many people viewed as post-grunge alt-rock oddities as they rose to prominence in the late 90s. This wasn’t help by such stunts as appearing on Top of the Pops playing toy instruments to promote early hit single “Susan’s House” and having such oddly unsettling artwork on their debut album. It took a few years for them to shake off the ‘oddball’ tag, by which time they were established as pretty much a regularly changing line up of musicians that revolved around band leader Mark ‘E’ Everett. E had actually released a pair of albums as a solo artist through the first half of the 90s, but had struggled to find much of an audience, regardless of the quality of his output. Thus chastened, E formed Eels with drummer Jonathan ‘Butch’ Norton and Tommy Walter and signed to the fledgling Dreamworks label.

Their first album was Beautiful Freak, which found Eels being pigeonholed along with the likes of Beck as the leaders of the brave new post-Cobain face of American alternative rock. The album isn’t one that immeadiately strikes the listener as an instant classic, but it does have a certain compelling quality to it. Home to early hits like “Susan’s House” and “Novocaine for the Soul”, songs which many people still instantly associate with them, as well as other well known songs like “My Beloved Monster”, it’s a stronger debut than I initially gave it credit for, and in many ways the strongest possible foundation stone for the band to build the rest of their career on. Either way, it remains the band’s biggest ‘hit’, but anyone who may think that means that everything that comes after it was of lesser quality would be in for a pleasant surprise.

After establishing themselves as quirky alt-rockers, few could have expected the emotional gut-punch that their sophomore album, Electro-Shock Blues would prove to be. Following the success of Beautiful Freak, E had suffered a series of significant bereavements which directly influenced the tone of the band’s second album. A deeply emotional and personal album, it must have put off as many fans as it thrilled, and it was a brave move on behalf of both the band and their record label that they would risk such an individual album after such a well received debut. It remains a potent musical statement and is one of the band’s strongest albums. It wasn’t without pop sensibility though, as “Last Stop This Town” is easily one of their best pop singles and even a song like “Cancer for the Cure” wasn’t totally without hit single potential.

Electro-Shock Blues isn’t a difficult second album in the traditional sense, but it certainly wasn’t what their fans were expecting at the time, though any album that closes with a song like “P.S. You Rock My World” is a classic as far as I’m concerned. It was also the last album recorded by the original line up of the band, as Tommy Walter would depart around the time of its release. From here on in Eels would consist of a regularly shifting line up of personnel.

Following the relatively uncommercial Electro-Shock Blues with something a little lighter and more digestible wasn’t particularly difficult, but it did make Daisies of the Galaxy seem a little lightweight by comparison. This is perhaps a little unfair, as some of the band’s best numbers are to be found here, including the gorgeously heartbreaking “It’s a Motherfucker”. It’s relative sweetness in comparison to its predecessor can mean that great songs like “Flyswatter”, “Jeanie’s Diary”, “Daisy Through Concrete” and “Wooden Nickels” can get unfairly overlooked, despite them being genuinely great tunes with more depth than they’re given credit for.

It’s this depth which frequently gets overlooked when people consider Eels output. While they are celebrated for being able to blast out a fantastic commercial rock song, as well as being able to pluck the heart-strings with a genuinely moving sparse love song, what are often ignored are all the stops that they make inbetween. Yes, they were capable of recording a throwaway pop song like “Mr E’s Beautiful Blues”, but they were equally as able to record something as pretty as “Selective Memory”.

It was about 2001 that Eels received their second wind of success from the unlikeliest of sources. By this time Dreamworks were a huge multimedia organisation and enjoyed a massive success with the first Shrek film, a key scene of which was soundtracked by Eels’ “My Beloved Monster”, the rolyalties from which should have provided E with enough financial freedom to follow wherever his muse would lead him. Whatever the case, from this point forward, Eels didn’t have to worry about scoring regular hit singles, so this commercial freedom ensured that E could pretty much do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

Eels next album would find E collaborating with PJ Harvey associate John Parish. The result was Souljacker, one of Eels’ most enduring albums. “Dog Faced Boy” “Jungle Telegraph” and “Souljacker Part 1” were strong rockers which contrasted nicely with the likes of “Bus Stop Boxer”. The entire album hangs together as a pleasing whole and the only thing it maybe lacks is a duet with PJ Harvey. Quite why E and PJ have never collaborated is something of a mystery to me, because despite their contrasting styles, the mind boggles as to what they might achieve together.

Since the late 90s E had been pulling together a series of songs with various Eels personnel and special guests that would eventually become a personal obsession of his. Such was the sheer diversity and number of songs recorded for the project, partway through this labour of love, E realised that he was losing all sense of spontaneity. As a reaction against this realisation, he took the rest of the band into the studio to quickly record an album which was unhampered by any needless over-thinking. Despite the lack of planning, Shootenanny! was a glorious success, and one of Eels’ most energetic albums. A personal favourite of mine, it’s mix of great tunes and uncomplicated dynamic leads to it having a ridiculously high concentration of Eels’ best songs (“Love of the Loveless”, “Dirty Girl”, “Rock Hard Times”, “Restraining Order Blues”, “Lone Wolf”, “Somebody Loves You”, etc).

After the spontaneous release of Shootenanny! E’s creative batteries were apparently recharged enough to conclude his epic statement, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Spread over two CDs and recorded by band members from every stage of Eels’ career to date, it was perhaps both over-ambitious and over-long, but you can’t argue with the fact that once again, E had created an album of songs which showed off the range of what he was capable of. From the unashamedly pop “Going Fetal” and “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)”, to the reflective “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb” and sweet “Railroad Man”, via the confessional “I’m Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart”, the sheer diversity underlined that E was a songwriter at the top of his game. Best of all though was “Ugly Love”, one of my all time favourite songs, and argument-winning confirmation that no one else did self-pitying angst in the modern male quite as well as E did.

Sure, not all of Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is top draw stuff. Like the majority of double albums, there’s a couple of tracks that just don’t seem as vital as the others around it. For all its wayward diversity, it’s a good album and once again, it featured a killer closing track, this time in the form of the oddly moving “Things the Grandchildren Should Know”.

After this Herculean feat, it was to be expected that E would take a bit of a break, however before he did, Eels went out on the well received Eels with Strings tour. A full decade after the whole MTV Unplugged thing had burnt itself out, Eels With Strings found the band largely acoustic, backed by a string section and reinventing some of their most beloved songs. While the band had released some limited edition live albums to sell at their shows, Eels had never released a widely available live album. Eels with Strings presented the ideal opportunity to confirm what a great live act they were, while still giving their long-term fans an album which presented much loved songs in alternative arrangements. Not only that, but E could take the opportunity to dig out the odd track from his solo track, some obscure B-sides and even indulge in a heartwarming cover of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”. Many of the new arrangements of Eels songs were significantly different from the originals, but none benefited more from the revision than “Dirty Girl”, which was always a great song, but on Eels With Strings Live at Town Hall, it is elevated to a work of genius.

The subsequent break from the studio gave Dreamworks the opportunity to release a pair of compilations. Meet The Eels was a near-flawless would-be greatest hits laid out in chronological order that could only have been improved with the addition of “Ugly Love”, and was the release that convinced me that I had previously unfairly dismissed Eels myself. Useless Trinkets was the companion piece to Meet The Eels, consisting of B-sides, rarities, general oddments and a DVD of live footage. It was a barrel-scraping exercise for sure, but as the barrel was so magnificent and such were the treasures unearthed, no one was going to complain.

When Eels finally released a new album, almost five years after their previous studio effort, it was one of their strongest. Hombre Lobo:12 Songs of Desire confirmed that E’s songwriting had lost none of its’ impact during his break. Able to straddle bluesy garage-rock and stripped-down raw confessional ballads, it managed to do something that very few albums have been able to, in that it accurately reflected multiple aspects of the more predatory sexual desires of the mature adult male. It’s my personal favourite of all Eels studio albums and I feel is E’s overlooked masterpiece.

After its’ release, E stated that Hombre Lobo was just the first album in a trilogy of albums which tackled relationships. If Hombre Lobo was chock full of sexual desire, then End Times was an album that found itself obsessing over the downside of relationships. It’s certainly Eels’ most downbeat album, but it has its’ own strength because of that. It’s the flipside to the horny and sexually frustrated album that went before it – this is the same guy watching a well established relationship fall to pieces around him years later through sheer apathy. Although not a fan favourite, I find End Times to be one of Eels’ most moving albums and in I’ve no doubt that in years to come, it will be considered one of their best.

The final part of the trilogy was Tomorrow Morning, and as much as I tried to like it, for me it was one of Eels’ lesser works, with too much reliance on synthesised sounds and studio trickery. To my ears at least it sounds like a solo album for E, where the emphasis was on studio experimentation, rather than making a cohesive album. Tomorrow Morning has a few pretty tunes, but not much that measures up to Eels’ best work and as a result is perhaps the most lightweight Eels album to date.

Wonderful, Glorious by contrast is very much a band-orientated release, as it was built around the whole band jamming in the studio. Unencumbered by a theme, or a concept, it was the most straightforward Eels album in years and all the better for it. It had rockers, it had more reflective material and it generally just felt like it was the easiest Eels album to make for some time. While E had obviously had to slacken his previously iron grip on the creative reins, it had resulted in a strong album and I for one would not object to a series of Eels albums recorded using this approach.

Having been established for nearly on two decades, there seems no sign of Eels calling it a day, or E running low on inspiration. While E’s blend of intelligent songwriting can range from being heart-breaking, aggressive, painfully self-aware to knowingly dumb and maybe isn’t for everyone, his idiosyncratic talent has resulted in a pleasing body of work, the majority of which will endure and even grow in stature over the years. While some Eels albums are admittedly stronger than others, they have yet to release a genuinely bad album and as long as they keep releasing albums, I’ll keep buying them.

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