The release of ramshackle marvel ‘Novocaine For The Soul’ was perfectly timed, hitting the zenith of the Nineties indie resurgence and introducing the world to the scuzzy beauty of Mark Everett’s unique songwriting. Truly, nobody else sounds like Eels and this thoroughly enjoyable opportunity to bask in the majesty of his first five studio releases under that name serves to emphasise the sheer number of remarkable songs he released between 1996 and 2003.
‘Beautiful Freak’ remains a classic. From that iconic single, past the ‘how-the-hell-was-this-a-hit?’ claustrophobia of ‘Susan’s House’ and on to ‘Your Lucky Day In Hell’, it showcased an artist capable of making misery remarkably catchy. After the fall from grace of grunge, it was odd to experience angst in such melodic fashion and the distinctive sonic palette Everett pursued ensured that the record has lost none of its charm in the nineteen years since its release. Not only does it contain some of the finest examples of dramatic pauses in music, but it also delivers the quiet-loud gear shift a staggering number of times. ‘My Beloved Monster’, ‘Rags To Rags’ and ‘Mental’ all delivering that satisfying rush amongst twelve songs which announced a major talent.
- - -
- - -
Having built expectations considerably, ‘Electro-Shock Blues’ arrived amongst stories of Everett reflecting on both the suicide of his sister and his mother receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. It ensured a darker, more intense collection of songs but, if anything, the delicate knack for melody shone brighter. Nowhere is this more evident than on ‘Climbing To The Moon’, a deeply moving track written in his sister’s voice talking about her time in hospital just prior to her death. Being spread across four sides of vinyl naturally suits the gruff earthiness of Everett’s vocals on this sombre set, the mastering doing justice to a peculiar but enduring record. These songs creak with raw emotion, summoning a weary persona that appears previously to have been occupied by Tom Waits and laying bare feelings which retain a sense of privacy despite the very public manner in which they are being aired.
While its predecessor may be an obvious highlight, ‘Electro-Shock Blues’ is arguably the genuinely essential album in this set and one which has never sounded better. ‘Daisies Of The Galaxy’ has often been uncharitably written off for being less intense than its predecessor, but time has been kind to it. Indeed, while there has been something of a plateau in Everett’s work in the last decade, the consistency across much of these five albums is particularly striking.
‘Jeanie’s Diary’ is the highlight here, a gentle piece built around the tender refrain, “I just wanna be a page in Jeannie's diary,” that is irresistible. Not to forget, of course, the uncredited but highly creditable ‘Mr E’s Beautiful Blues,’ which Everett had intended to be a standalone single until Dreamworks insisted upon its inclusion, hence its less than prime spot. From its garish gatefold sleeve to the final notes of that incongruous track, ‘Daisies Of The Galaxy’ now proves to be an unexpected delight.
If that third record had faced accusations of being a little lightweight, then the fuzzier atmosphere of 2001’s ‘Souljacker’ felt like a sonic onslaught, with Beck’s ‘Odelay!’ an apt reference point used by some at the time. The twitching extremes of ‘That's Not Really Funny’ remain a delight, the vocals rendered with a lo-fi microphone sound that Julian Casablancas would be proud of. ‘Fresh Feeling’ is true post-millennial pop, self-sampled orchestra and lolloping beats sculpted to perfection. The idea that this was considered difficult upon release, even being delayed as the label queried the lack of singles, suggests that music has come a long way in fourteen years as tracks like ‘Woman Driving, Man Sleeping’ now feel a little too pragmatically constructed. That this nestles next to the disturbing narrator of ‘Souljacker Part 1’ ensures the chaotic air is sustained. It's a bizarre, not wholly satisfying but sporadically excellent album that transcends its wilfully unenticing artwork for which E modelled as the Unabomber. Perhaps some things are best left CD sized.
‘Shootenanny!’ is the one record here which fails to truly leave a mark. From its drearily nondescript cover onwards, it never seems to take off. It feels like an album made because an album was due rather than because the artist had much to say. More of the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it feels a little like pastiche at this point. The formula of shimmering melody and endearingly rough vocals is not unappealing when applied to these thirteen songs, but its shortcomings are made all the more transparent when experienced in close proximity to what had come before. As anyone who has dabbled with recent records like ‘Hombre Lobo’ and ‘The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett’ will tell you, E remains excellent at sounding like Eels but, whereas those first four albums veered all over the place, the variety is long gone. Add ‘Blinking Lights And Other Revelations’ to this set and you would have all the Eels you'll ever need and a little more.
The already scarce boxed set puts live album ‘Electro-Shock Blues Show’ on vinyl for the first time alongside the five studio records to enjoyable if inessential effect. It’s an opportunity for some of Eels’ most introspective material to get an endearingly rowdy reading and it’s an enjoyable way to round out a journey back through Everett’s past. The studio titles can be picked up individually and, in light of the increasingly ‘quantity rather than quality’ favouring industry approach to vinyl, these dynamic pressings are perfect demonstrations of how to do it right.
- - -
- - -
Words: Gareth James