Eels Still Vital and Thinking Outside the Fishtank
A quarter century down the line, do Eels have anything left in the tank? Good news for fans of Mark Oliver Everett, his longtime guitarslinging collaborator John Parish and their rotating cast of characters: they’ve got an energetic new album, Extreme Witchcraft streaming at Spotify.
Over the years, Everett has veered from withering cynicism to more optimistic territory. Happily, he hasn’t lost his edge here: there’s no shortage of the understated angst and relentless sarcasm that put Eels on the map in the mid 90s. And the album is very guitar-centric: credit Parish’s straightforward, purist four-on-the-floor production.
The opening track, Amateur Hour has haphazard guitars in an early 90s RaIlroad Jerk vein: “You gotta go pro someday…life can be dumb but I’m not gonna be your fool.”
In Good Night on Earth, the band start with fuzztone Black Keys-style riff-rock and add layers of guitar and keyboard textures over it. Built around a vampy slide guitar hook, Strawberries and Popcorn is closer to the allusive unease and screaming subtext that Everett has worked so well throughout his career. Likewise, he works the gloomy railroad metaphors in Steam Engine, a dark soul strut, for all they’re worth .
Grandfather Clock Strikes Twelve has a snarky 90s Citizen King faux-funk feel and lyrics to match. Stumbling Bee has echoey Rhodes piano, wah guitar and fuzztone layers, in a White Denim ersatz soul vein. Sarcasm hits fever pitch in The Magic, a self-referential stab at a whoomp-whoomp dancefloor jam.
Better Living Through Desperation – which could be Everett’s theme song – has a loose-limbed White Stripes sway. Then they slow down with more of that echoey Rhodes and drifting string synth in So Anyway, a morose, soul-tinged ballad.
The album’s best song, What It Isn’t shifts between a downcast, drifting Abbey Road Beatles theme and scrambling, defiant punk rock: the point is to avoid giving in to defeat. A wise suggestion for 2022.
Learning While I Lose is a surprising detour into Buddy Holly territory. The album’s final cut is I Know You’re Right, a bristling, catchy 60’s-influenced backbeat soul-rock number. Cool to see a guy who could just play to the nostalgia crowd and get away with it opting to stay vital and think outside the box – or the fishtank. Eels are on European tour right now, with UK shows beginning on March 14 at the Roundhouse in London.