Friday, December 14, 2007


For most bands whose first hit was their big hit (and that was 11 years ago) their PR and promotions options are restricted to punching a celebrity or marrying a stripper. However Mark Everett from Eels has been able to make a documentary, screened last week on BBC4 about his physicist dad who developed a theory of parallel universes in 1957.

Well it's definitely worked as PR, because I've gone straight to the Eels back catalogue. I haven't made it to the Quantum Mechanics section of the bookshelf yet.

I think there's always been an atmosphere of suspicion around Eels. A sense that they were corporate. When their debut album came out on DreamWorks, 2 years after Kurt Cobain died it all just seemed too calculated. The mix of grunge flavoured relentless chord sequences, Hip Hop's funky drummer beats, quiet loud, stop start song structures, samples and lyrics that dealt with the full emotional range. From unhappy to miserable.

In the same way that Morrissey was always (wrongly) written off as humourless and miserable, E (as the abbreviated Mark Oliver Everett likes to be known) presents an easy target. It's worth digging past those easy prejudices though as there is plenty to love in the Eels back catalogue.

Debut album Beautiful Freak came out in 1996 and it's first track Novocaine For The Soul was the first single and their biggest hit. With it's opening lines "Life is hard and so am I. You'd better give me something before I die", it's a mix of strings, music box plinkiness and a hoarse Cobain style vocal.

Susan's House is another stop start song structure with a sung chorus and spoken verse detailing a grim urban walk past a shooting, drug deals and teenage mothers. The hook is a piano part that used to really irritate me because I never liked Bruce Hornsby or his Range….and this sounds just like it should be them. It's actually a sample from Gladys Knights song from 1975 Love Will Find It's Own Way.

The title track with it's line "You're such a beautiful freak. I wish there were more like you. You're not like all of the others. That is why I love you"

Now to my jaded ears this sounds like the sort of thing that a sulky adolescent wants to hear when they want to feel special. With it's strings and piano it's a celebration of the eternal outsider and is part lullaby, part nursery rhyme. Disturbingly E was actually 33 when he wrote it. A man still in touch with his inner adolescent. And still in his teenage bedroom if the lyrics of Not Ready Yet are anything to go by. It has more quiet/loud and hoarse Cobainisms as he sings "So if I leave my room. Don't you tell me to lighten up."

My Beloved Monster crops up on Shrek (that would be the DreamWorks connection then) and it sounds like the ogre version of Elvis Costello's version of I Don't Know What To Do With Myself. The guitar collisions and squalls are splendid.

Guest List is another of his outsider songs while Mental has the "They say I'm mental but I'm just confused. They say I'm mental but I've been abused. They say I'm mental but I'm not amused by it all". It's a quiet/loud structure. Amazingly the closing track Manchild starts with a sample of a woman's voice saying "I'm not having any fun." Just in case you hadn't noticed!

1988's Electro Shock Blues is a far superior album. Michael Simpson from the Dust Brothers had collaborated on many of the tracks and there is a hefty Beck influence throughout

The subject matter is still unrelentingly grim and autobiographical, covering his sister's overdose and his mother's death from cancer. "My name is Elizabeth. My life is shit and piss." It's not pretty and neither is the image from Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor, with the woman lying there unable to get up while the cat licks her face.

Going To Your Funeral (part 1) isn't much jollier either but it does sound fantastic. E does his full vocal range from B to C (Beck to Cobain), falsetto vocals over a boomy rasp of a bass line. The vocals sound dislocated, there are biscuit tin drums, Eels trademark music box keyboards and best of all a slide guitar line that sounds like it's probably made up from 2 tracks, one played forwards and one backwards.

Cancer For The Cure sounds like a Beck's Devils Haircut, with the drums from She's Lost Control by Joy Division and Sly Stone keyboards.

My Descent Into Madness has a string sample that sounds like The Stones She's A Rainbow, sixties soul keyboards and yet astonishingly manages to remind me of Going To Barbados by Typically Tropical.

3 Speed does manage to sound sweet and nostalgic though, with it's images of riding a 3 speed bike with a banana seat, leaning back on the sissy bar" Although, being Eels, the chorus is "You think I've got it all going my way then why am I such a fucking mess."

After trawling through the first 2 albums, the listener's got to ask themselves just how much can you take of someone else's grief, and introspection? Especially when you know there's 6 albums worth of this stuff. Amazingly the advance copies of Shootenany included a 5 page press release with a song by song breakdown of the albums themes. This was more succinctly dealt with by the slide projection on the tour that simply read "29 transient members. One deeply troubled permanent member".

By album number 4 the murderously sounding Soul Jacker he's hooked up with John Parish from PJ Harvey's band. The result is an evil Blues Glam stomp that goes from serial killer (Soul Jacker) to high school shootings to the pyscho at the bus stop. Dog Faced Boy has the great line "Mama won't shave me, Jesus won't save me"

Blinking Lights is his post 9/11 album where the E's personal family death toll extended to his cousin and her husband who were killed in the plane that hit the Pentagon. He's been quoted as saying" For me I've had to treat my family like an art project. It's really my only means of relating to it all"

He's determined to make you work at it though. Blinking Lights is a double album, 33 tracks, part orchestral, and part piano ballads with most of the better songs appearing on the second disc. There's touches of Tom Waits (well more than a touch...he actually appears on it) and the final track has one of those odd uplifting moments that are all the more surprising to be coming from E. It comes after you've worked through the line in Old Shit/New Shit about "The psychic pain of living in the world"

And the uplifting bit? Well it's on the closing track Things The Grandchildren Should Know where he sings "But if I had to do it all again, well it's something I'd like to do." And then the song fades out over an instrumental section. Now there's 2 ways of looking at this kind of fade. You could say that the band has run out of ideas and either don't know how to end it, or are incapable of ending it. (eg The first Stooges album where all the tracks fade out because the band just couldn't stop playing). There is a however a more positive view, and in the case of Things The Grandchildren Should Know that's the view I'm plumping for.

The fade out here sounds like he's made up his mind, dealt with what's happened and is now setting off down a new road. I get a similar feeling from the last minute of Cheap is How I Feel by The Cowboy Junkies, with it's extended pedal steel section. There's an air of resignation to it, tempered with a feeling of "Let's just get on with it" It's a great way to end the album

I do actually like Eels. Hard work though it may be. I really like the story around the film though. It was made after a tape was unearthed where his dad Hugh is discussing his theory on Quantum Mechanics while his son Everett Jr can be heard playing drums in the background.

Now I'm not a scientist (but I do know how to wear a white coat) but Quantum Mechanics tries to explain some of the odd ways that sub atomic particles behave. They can appear to be in 2 places at once. Conventional theory argued that they stopped doing that as soon as you tried to measure it (which itself is quite a thought...just imagine if that worked for crime, corruption and philandering.)

Everett Senior argued that at the instant where Quantum Theory puts a particle in 2 places at once then the universe splits into a parallel universe. Thus allowing the particle to also exist in the same place, but in that other universe. It's Sci fi. It's parallel worlds. And it raises the possibility that while in this world E is a grumpy Kurt Cobain with a major case of unhappy bunny syndrome, in another parallel universe he could be as upbeat as The Polyphonic Spree singing S Club.

Everett Sr's theory didn't gain support though so he concentrated on drinking and being a distant, aloof father figure to provide source material for his son's future career as a miserable autobiographical songwriter. I'm still impressed though because he'd come up with his theory at the age of 24. At that age I was researching crisps and savoury snack products.