The Good: Generally good instrumentals and sound, Not a bad use of two c.d.s.
The Bad: Could still hold more, Derivative of other Eels works
The Basics: Thematically and musically repetitive, Blinking Lights And Other Revelations is largely a study in average by Eels.
Alternative music is a genre of music that is very hard to nail down as to what it truly is. After all, literally, "alternative" could encompass anything that is not part of the mainstream or "pop" ("popular") of a time. By that standard, early rap like that of Public Enemy would be "alternative." Similarly, today as country and hip-hop/rap dominate the pop charts artists that are more traditionally rock and roll might be considered "alternative." But far too often, I encounter groups that are labeled as "alternative" as a euphemism for "commercially unsuccessful." Eels is one such group.
The two-disc album Blinking Lights And Other Revelations topped out on the U.S. charts (Billboard 200) at 93. This is not, traditionally, considered a successful album and the ever-changing band known as Eels (which is essentially Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by "E" on many albums, and whomever he is collaborating with at the time) was once again dubbed "alternative." However, listening to the album now, I am left with the question "alternative to what?!" Eels in this incarnation is hardly audacious or so different as to be pioneering any new sound, themes or genre. In fact, it is clearly derivative of every other work of Everett's I've heard back to his album A Man Called E (reviewed here!). Moreover, I was unsurprised to find that Tom Waits had contributed to Blinking Lights And Other Revelations because several of the tracks had a Waits vibe with Everett's smooth voice simply replacing Waits' growl.
Spread over two discs, Blinking Lights And Other Revelations is a collection of thirty-three new songs representing over ninety minutes of music (disc one has 17 songs at 46:55, disc 2 has the remaining 16 tracks at 46:32 ). The album is primarily the creative vision of Everett, who wrote all of the songs, both music and lyrics, save five, which he co-wrote with the likes of Peter Buck and John Sebastian. Everett produced the album and plays a few instruments on it, though more often the tracks are programmed or have others playing the music Everett wrote. Still, it is hard to argue that the result is anything other than Everett's intended musical vision on the album.
Generally, that musical vision is either a mix of repeated sounds from earlier albums or derivations on sounds from other musical artists. So, for example, "Trouble With Dreams" sounds a lot like "Hospital Food" from the Eels album Electro-Shock Blues (reviewed here!). Everett strikes a lot of the same chords on both discs and between the somewhat limited scope of many of the compositions, like the contemplative instrumentals that introduce "Bride Of Theme From Blinking Lights" sound like other compositions on the earlier disc and on other Eels albums.
The other half of the limitations to Blinking Lights And Other Revelations is that many of the songs sound derivative of other people's works. "Dust Of Ages" and "Old Shit/New Shit" sound like Tom Waits wrote and composed them. Similarly, some of Everett's vocals sounds like he is attempting an impersonation of John Flansburg of They Might Be Giants.
The only thing worse than when Everett is derivative on this album is when he creates a sound that is utter sugarpop, as he does on "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)." The upbeat tempo and peppy vocals are annoying and the listener has to wonder what the intent was. For sure, most of Everett's vocals are mumbled and somewhat garbled and melancholy, but "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)" sounds like a teen inspirational anthem with the phony clapping noises and the clear enthusiasm. It is enough to make one wonder if they have suddenly skipped tracks onto a completely different artist, it is so unlike anything else on the album.
Most of what is on Blinking Lights And Other Revelations are songs that are deeply melancholy ("I'm Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart") or deep childhood desires filled with unfulfilled idealism ("Understanding Salesman"). Everett's music is seldom happy and as a result, most of the album is presented with a feeling like it is Everett's catharsis for his own damage.
Take, for example, the Eels song "Son Of A Bitch." This song is very much autobiographical from Everett's life as he presents "Daddy was a drunk / A most unpleasant man / Asleep on the floor / Just inside the front door / With a smile underneath his red nose / The wrong look his way / Well that could really wreck his day / And believe me when I say / It would wreck your day too" ("Son Of A Bitch"). The thing is, creating a musical storysong, even one that is either depressing or autobiographical, can still turn out wonderfully, but in this case, the song falls flat. It is generally atonal, and the result is while it might have been perfectly necessary for Everett to get through some of his baggage, he imposes his issues on the listener without rewarding them with anything a musical, which is pretty much the point of listening to a c.d.
This is not to say that all of the Eels songs that might be autobiographical or melancholy are not good. Indeed, Everett proves his ability to write on some of the most depressing tracks on the album. Even with plain language, Everett articulates concepts of loneliness, regret and ennui: "Wake up in the night and think of all the years / Falling from the ceiling and covering your ears / You don't know how you're gonna get out / You don't know how you'll get out / I'll go none too bravely / Into the night / I'm so tired of living / The suicide life / That ain't no reason to live" ("Suicide Life"). Eels might be dark on some of these tracks, but the darkness is compelling, real and expressed in a way all adults who have had any trying time will be able to understand them and empathize with the depth of the emotions expressed.
Unfortunately, not all of the lyrics are sterling. I was shocked that Peter Buck's contribution to the writing ("To Lick Your Boots") included some of the most awful rhymes on the album. But Everett manages to take the cake with the poorest example of diction and rhyming on "Sweet Li'l Thing." That song includes such dramatically contrived lines as "The feeling of understanding is very rare / For someone like me it's hard to find / Somebody to care / She's got a way about her / Changes everything / She's got a way about her / She's my sweet li'l thing" ("Sweet Li'l Thing"). Perhaps the only thing more insulting about having obvious rhymes like "rare/care" is how Everett rhymes "her" and "thing" with themselves.
Instrumentally, Blinking Lights And Other Revelations is remarkably average with a very standard sounding pop-rock sensibility to it. The songs are mostly keyboard driven and they tend to all be melancholy (with the one prior noted exception). Everett is occasionally original enough to cover this up with sampled sounds, as he does on "Sweet Li'l Thing" where the lyrics are obscured some by sampled whistles. But generally, the album is rather predictable and musically average.
The result is a lot of music that sounds largely the same and is singing about much the same stuff that Eels has presented at least as well on prior albums. This, then, makes it easy for those looking for the next big thing easy to pass on Blinking Lights And Other Revelations.
The best tracks are "Suicide Life" (Disc 1) and "I'm Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn't Break Your Heart" (Disc 2), the low points are "The Other Shoe" (Disc 1) and "Hey Man (Now You're Really Living" (Disc 2).
For other Artist Of The Month reviews, be sure to visit my reviews of:
It Ain’t Easy: The Essential Recordings - Wilson Pickett
Forty Licks - The Rolling Stones
Seal (2) - Seal
For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for a comprehensive list of all the albums and singles I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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