The Unbearable Lightness of Eels

Jeffrey Parker Thompson

"...hanging by his legs and hands."

To see Eels live is an interesting experience. Take the group’s springtime appearance on Letterman to promote the new album Daisies of the Galaxy. Eels were spread across the stage, sporting two sets of keyboards supported by a horn section and drums. The lead singer (Mark Oliver Everett, provocatively called "E") was wearing dark-rimmed glasses and playing keyboards. The song, "Flyswatter," was a quirky, melodic number that could have been written by Danny Elfman for a Tim Burton movie or sung by Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Eels allowed the song to break down a couple of times during the set, letting the tune dissolve into irritating cacophony, only to quickly recover the melody and carry on. Finally, the song completely dissolved into noise. The lead singer climbed over his keyboard and remained there, suspended, hanging by his legs and hands. I was surprised to find myself highly entertained by Eels. It was like watching Frank Zappa dangerously flail about while singing "Dancing Fool" on Saturday Night Live many years ago. The display was inspired when compared to the dance-driven, hackneyed performances we usually get in this, the age of Boy Band/Britney domination.

I remembered Eels from their single "Novocaine for the Soul" off the album Beautiful Freak from a few years back. I recall that the album created a mild sensation, but not enough of one to keep me from missing their "critically acclaimed" follow-up Electro-Shock Blues from 1998. The television performance jogged my memory, so I bought the new album.



Daisies of the Galaxy makes an interesting listen. Immediately, one notices an absence of the geek-punk quality of the Letterman appearance. The kinetic energy of that live performance is subdued, allowing E’s introspective and confessional lyrics to bubble to the surface. And although the words on Daisies of the Galaxy deal with emotional pain, loss, and alienation, they are often couched in rhymes that would be perfectly at home between the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. For example, on the track "Tiger in My Tank," E sings "Taking a walk down to the mall/ Smelling piss and beer and gas/ That could be me in a couple years/ Suckin’ fumes under the highway pass." Or on "Flyswatter," the following: "Field mice, head lice/ Spiders in the kitchen/ Don’t think twice ‘bout/ Whatever keeps you itchin’." The tunes, for the most part, have carefully crafted, Beach Boys-esque melodies and are woven around simple arrangements featuring guitar, keyboards, and drums. Occasionally, one can hear a horn section supporting the spare arrangements. This sound is unexpected given the sample-rich production of the past two albums.

" is refreshing to see a band stop, think, and write solid melodies."

But how refreshingly simple it all is. These are good pop songs, rich with heart, intelligence, and wit. If their first two albums were any indication, Eels were on a path to become a more refined version of Beck, reminiscent of the latter artist’s Mellow Gold/ Odelay phase. This would have positioned Eels as the type of band that would have used a lot of sampling to create a "new" sound. But with Daisies of the Galaxy, Eels change course and are better for it. While I am a fan of countless forms of postmodern appropriation and honestly enjoy music that continues to borrow, steal, and mix-up previously recorded sounds, it is refreshing to see a band stop, think, and write solid melodies. E has always been an interesting lyricist. The suicide of his sister and the death of his father, all within a short time span, fueled the dark words of Electro-Shock Blues. Although the lyrics are also filled with longing and sadness on Daisies of the Galaxy, there are several songs that work like witty detours around the pain. "Flyswatter" is a good example. So is "Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues," the last (unlisted) track on the CD, and perhaps the finest song. Accompanied by a bouncy pop riff, E comments on pollution, animal abuse, suicide, and a mass shooting only to say, "Goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day." Confronted with the injustice (and irony) of modern life, Daisies of the Galaxy offers a touch of deadpan humor and several whimsical tunes that remind us to laugh, smile, and fiddle while Rome burns.



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