Friday, July 20, 2012

Looking For Something Different, Electro-Shock Blues By Eels (Mostly) Fits The Bill! (My New Male Artist Of The Month!)

The Good: Good sound, Energetic instrumentals, Quirky
The Bad: First half is way stronger than the second half, Some repetitiveness
The Basics: A quirky, but somewhat erratic, album Electro-Shock Blues presents Eels as a melancholy, eccentric band going through a rough time.

As I figured out my artists of the month in the music category - who I would focus on each month - I knew I wanted to alternate each month between a male and a female artist. Sometimes, I try to take a leap and learn about a group that is entirely different from what I know and usually listen to. When I was making the list up, I had just seen Yes Man (reviewed here!) with its soundtrack by Eels and on-screen, the band backing up Zoey Deschanel was mostly female, so I thought this would be a great band for my Male Artist Of The Month.

However, two things quickly happened: the first was that my local library could not get me in nearly enough albums from Eels to make them my de facto artist of the month and I discovered that the core member of Eels is, in fact, a male. This threw my whole alternating each month plan. Still, I found I was fascinated by Eels and opted to give the albums of theirs I could get in a fair listen and the first one that crossed my desk was Electro-Shock Blues.

With sixteen tracks, clocking out at 48:08, Electro-Shock Blues is very much the musical vision of Eels, who is most consistently E (Mark Everett). Everett wrote or co-wrote all sixteen of the songs on the album and he co-produced the album as well. E also provides the lead vocals and the instruments are played by E and others, like Grant Lee Philips and Jon Brion. But this is, essentially, the musical vision of Eels.

And that musical vision is good. And weird. In fact, the fundamental problem with Electro-Shock Blues is that the first half of the album is eclectic and experimental while the latter tracks are largely moody, melancholy and soft . . . all in the same way. When the album sets the listener up for funny, weird and experimental and then becomes monotonous in its ultimate execution with soft instrumentals and mumbled lyrics, the listener feels profoundly let down.

It is hard not to enjoy the early part of the album, whatwith its energetic and odd lines. Songs like "Cancer For The Cure" are just funny when Eels sing "The kids are diggin' up a brand new hole / Where to put the deadbeat mom / Grandpa's happy watching video porn / With the closed-caption on / And father knows best / About suicide and smack / Well, hee hee hee / Cancer for the cure . . . Buckle up and endure now baby" ("Cancer For The Cure"). The song has a Beck vibe to it, but it has a sense of humor that is original and underrepresented in pop - and largely alternative - music. Eels do not ask the listener to take them completely seriously and the disarming, enjoyable lines like those in "Cancer For The Cure" make for something truly fun.

This is not to say that their quirky lyrics are unmeaningful or not deep. Indeed, Electro-Shock Blues is an album characterized largely by the melancholy and profound in that the lines are often about death ("Elizabeth On The Bathroom Floor") and illness. Singing about the monotony of getting through illness, the group wrote ". . . He's always got a problem / He's a very bitter dude / And now he is complaining / 'bout his hospital food / Hospital food / It's gonna help the medicine go down / Want some hospital food / Gonna take a walk without a sound / A little hospital food / Helps the spoonful of sugar come up / I want some hospital food / In your blender and in my cup" ("Hospital Food"). While it is a little repetitive with the title within the song so frequently, it makes its statement quite well. Moreover, it makes it musical, which is a tough thing when your muse is the monotony of being in a hospital and what one endures there.

Electro-Shock Blues carries the concept of "blues" rather well, well beyond the title track. Songs like "Dead Of Winter" have wonderful imagery - at least for those who have been through cancer treatments for themselves or loved ones. Lines like "So I know you're going pretty soon / Radiation sore throat got your tongue / Magic markers tattoo you / And show it where to aim / And strangers break their promises / You won't feel any / You won't feel any pain" ("Dead Of Winter") are evocative of (unfortunately) increasingly universal experiences like surviving cancer or battling it with a loved one. Eels (or Everett, at least) writes it real well, capturing a very true sense of pain and detail for the life in the hospital and going through treatments.

Moreover, Eels makes the entire experience truly musical. Unfortunately, it is the instrumentals - mostly a mix of synths and percussion - that makes Electro-Shock Blues fall apart. The first half of the album truly is best analogized to Beck with quirky, up-tempo sounds and a real sense of experimentalism. Similarly, on "Last Stop: This Town" there is an early They Might Be Giants sense of sound and kookiness. But all of the latter songs abandon this for traditional, murky ballads and that the album sweeps so drastically from one extreme to the other makes it far too erratic to work as an album.

Vocally, E is more than adequate with his smooth voice and ability to articulate his own lines. He has some range, holding notes for a strained sound ("3 Speed"), going fast and articulate on other tracks ("Cancer For The Cure") and bringing his voice into a slow and melodic sound for still others ("P.S. You Rock My World" and the album's title track). He even comes close to falsetto (almost) on "Efil's God" and it works. Here, though, there is more irregularity. The latter half of the album, almost all of the vocals are mumbled, whereas during the faster - one assumes, more challenging - bits, E sings clearly. This is somewhat troublesome as clearly E has the ability to make himself understood, but chooses not to in the second half.

Still, Electro-Shock Blues is a decent album and well worth the listen and the buy for someone looking for something different than the same three chords played by pop-rock artists on the radio. Moreover, this has a thematic depth a lot of new artists do not achieve, making it worthwhile there, too.

The best track is "Last Stop: This Town," the low point is the unmemorable "Ant Farm."

For other, prior, Male Artist Of The Month selections, visit my reviews of:
Love Songs - Elvis Presley
Greatest Hits - Red Hot Chili Peppers
Aladdin Sane - David Bowie


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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