Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Revisiting Eels (Sort Of) With The Average A Man Called E.

The Good: Decent vocals, Some interesting lines, Musically inoffensive
The Bad: SHORT, Unambitious, Thoroughly average.
The Basics: While somewhat quirky, A Man Called E is monotonous in its depressive vocals, themes and mellow instrumentals making it too tough a sell.

Before I made Ella Fitzgerald my Artist Of The Month, my intent had been to make Eels the group I immersed myself in. To that end, I began getting in Eels albums and I had a chance to listen to and review Electro-Shock Blues (that’s here!) before realizing I could not get enough of their albums in in time and that they would not hold me an entire month. Still, I was intrigued by the group and given the chance, I did get in a few more of their albums for review.

The first thing I came to learn about Eels is that the band is essentially Mark Oliver Everett, an artist who goes simply by E. E is the lone constant in Eels throughout its various incarnations and E's album A Man Called E was his first full-length album (there was a limited edition release prior to this, but this was his major label debut). E at this point in his career was a mellow-singing pop-rock artist who was billed as "alternative," perhaps because he was singing fairly clearly when most of pop was still in its grunge phase. The truth is, on A Man Called E, E's sound is hardly original. My first listen instantly harkened me back to the music of Autumn Defense (their sampler Birds And Beasts And Flowers is reviewed here!). This is not to say A Man Called E is not good, but it is hardly exceptional, unique or even fulfilling as a musical experience.

With only eleven tracks occupying only 31:59, A Man Called E is difficult to get excited about if for no other reason than it is so short and with the average song occupying just over three minutes, the album has a very repetitive feel to it. On the plus side, having come off a month of a performer, it is refreshing to return to an actual artist. And despite the lack of material, E is an actual artist. E wrote all but two of the songs and the final two ("Hello Cruel World" and "Nowheresville") he wrote with co-producer Parthenon Huxley. E co-produces the album, sings on it and plays all sorts of instruments including guitars, piano, keyboards, drums accordion and programming. In other words, this is very much the musical vision of E.

And it is generally a good, if mellow and average sound. E presents himself as a vocalist accompanied by fairly generic pop rock beats. Songs like "Pray" could have been produced by virtually any musical person with singing ability and keyboards it has such a universal, young artist sound. The tracks tend to be keyboard driven with decent guitar accompaniment on most of them and they are almost universally mellow and simple. There are no strong, memorable, instantly recognizable melodies on this album and over the course of the eight listens I went through to write the review, I was amazed at how little musically stuck with me. There is a very white bread pop feel to the album which is accented by the thematic monotony of melancholy lyrics.

A Man Called E is also plagued by the vocal performances of E himself, which rather consistently sound like he is a man in desperate need of massive amounts of antidepressants. This is not to say that he is a poor vocalist; he actually has a beautifully smooth voice which resonates and when he wants it to articulates his lines wonderfully. Unfortunately, most of the time, it sounds like he is singing down to the floor and mumbling his lines as opposed to actually trying to make himself heard. The album might best be characterized as music to keep depressed people down performed by a vocal introvert.

This is a bit of a musical bait-and-switch because the album actually opens with a fairly energetic song that employs more guitars than most of the rest of the album. E breaks out with "Hello Cruel World," which lyrically is not fun, but it sounds peppy. On "Are You & Me Gonna Happen" E sounds like a clone of Sting vocally and musically, but the rest of the album, he pretty much mumbles through on his own, as if he does not so much care who hears or how they react to his music.

There is something unfortunate, then, about A Man Called E as E does appear to have something to say through his music. E is a poet and while his poetry might be depressing, he actually has a pretty wonderful sense of imagery that he employs from the very first song. He is able to captivate the listener with lines like "Norman Rockwell's colors fade, / All my favorite things have changed. / What the hell, / Hello cruel world, / I thought I heard an opera star, / Who had no home under the stars, / She sang and sang, / And sang the night away, / And mother nature changed her name, / She doesn't want to play the game, / I don't believe she'll ever be the same. . ." ("Hello Cruel World"). E has ideas and he taps well into the public domain to make allusions that are instantly recognizable and he manages to capture a pretty universal sense of ennui.

Unfortunately, E also is very repetitive even on this very short album. The title line to songs like "Are You & Me Gonna Happen" and "You'll Be The Scarecrow" get repeated a bit much in their respective songs. Still, E is an adequate musical storyteller creating some vivid characters, even if he does not enunciate when he tells the listener about them. One might only imaging how much more powerful the empathy for his characters would be if he did not mumble when singing about how "She says her mother is gone now, / She says she never got kin, / I said, 'I'm sorry, but is it true, / 'did she really name you Mockingbird?' / Mockingbird Franklin, / Broke your heart in two, / Mockingbird Franklin, / I'm a lot like you" ("Mockingbird Franklin"). The idea of two lonely people meeting is great fodder for a song, but it has to be presented so the listener can understand it and revel in the coming together of the musical characters.

Much of A Man Called E is concerned with creating a mood of ennui and E does that expertly on songs like "Nowheresville." Presented with his standard mumbled vocalizations, E creates a scenario anyone who has felt lost and alone might be able to empathize with. One figures he knew exactly how he wanted it to sound when he wrote "I'm on my way, / I'm almost nowhere, / I'm almost everything I swore I'd never be, / When I get there, / Then I go somewhere, / I'm going to pay my last respects / And get the hell out of there, / Out of nowhere, / I'm stuck in mud, / Spinning my wheels, / And I'm all alone on the / Road to Nowheresville" ("Nowheresville") because he mixes the mumbling perfectly with the lines to create a mood that perfectly exemplifies the sense of loss the song portrays.

Still, A Man Called E is too tough of a sell; there is too little of it and what there is is so monotonous as to make one wonder who would keep coming back to this album. After all, you can only kill yourself once and if this is the soundtrack for people building up to offing themselves, as the oppressive depressive mood of it suggests, there is a very small demographic that it will fit.

The best song is "Nowheresville," the low point is the unmemorable "Looking Out The Window With A Blue Hat On."

For other, former, Artist Of The Month reviews, check out:
Rumours (2-disc version) – Fleetwood Mac
Actually (2-disc version) – Pet Shop Boys
Opiate - Tool


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page where the albums and singles are ranked best to worst!

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