Additional Engineering by Greg Burns, Alicia Guadagno
|Side One:||Side Two:|
The list of artists I’ve so far covered that I’ve listened to longer than Eels is relatively short and largely composed of the least surprising artists for me to have known for a long period of time.¹ I actually made my way into Eels fandom on the cusp of my freshman year of college, at the suggestion of my then-girlfriend, who owned Daisies of the Galaxy (in its infamously, hilariously self-censored version) and Beautiful Freak, both of which I owned before too terribly long after that, alongside their two closest temporal relatives: 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues and 2001’s Souljacker, which was still the most recent album at the time. A year later, this album was released, and you can bet, by then, I was picking it up right around the release date.
My Eels records are–somewhat shockingly–apparently the most valuable records I own. I don’t own a ton (the others are the 2×10″ Electro-Shock Blues and the last album, Wonderful, Glorious on the same format, but in a different colour, as well as End Times with its “A Line in the Dirt” 7″ companion), but people will apparently pay a lot for them. It’s less that it’s shocking for quality or popularity, and more for the fact that it has felt more like the Eels crowd is shrinking than growing, so why they would remain so expensive when the audience is (I think?) dwindling, I don’t know. Still, right now the only vinyl copy of this record listed at any sites I’d ever check to see if I want to pick up a record I can’t readily find² is at one of three sites, and they start from $125 US. Yowza! That’s almost ten times what I paid for it a decade ago!
I suppose it’s interesting I started listening to Eels in the fashion I did–for one thing, Chelsea isn’t and wasn’t A Music Person™, as she has since made a single music recommendation, and, within a year or two I knew more Eels music than she did by increasing orders of magnitude. I don’t think she’s ever caught up, but the whole not-A-Music-Person™ thing means that when we talk, it isn’t usually about music anyway. For another, Beautiful Freak is probably the most uncharacteristic of all of their albums, and Daisies is almost always talked of or thought of in the shadow of its predecessor (’98’s Electro-Shock Blues). The censored version of Daisies, alongside that, did make it possible to hear it in the art class we shared (sort of–only “It’s a Motherfucker” was censored, and incompletely, as it was all sarcastic anyway), but was, of course, not the original. I do sometimes think about finding a copy of that version, though.
But I was rather well-rounded on my Eels knowledge by the time Shootenanny! came out. I had all of their albums up to that point and tended to wear them out constantly, especially in those days where you could carry my CD collection in a box or two–and maybe even my records, for that matter (I couldn’t tell you how many it takes now, because I didn’t count all of them when I moved here 9 months ago). It became more and more interesting that I did like them, though–Chelsea’s parents did, too, and so did mine. My whole nuclear family went to see them live once, even, though I recall it being closer to the release of follow-up Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.
With “All in a Day’s Work”, the feel and tone of most of Shootenanny! is set into place: unsurprisingly for Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”), it’s entirely in contrast to the image set-up by an exclamation mark on a word modified from a celebratory occasion. It’s largely plodding in pace, with a grungy filter over his voice that distorts it quite deliberately. There’s a nice set of instruments behind it, and he even works in an interesting vocal “duet” with the guitars, but it remains dirge-like despite this, particularly via Butch’s clear-cut and knowingly basic drumming. It’s always been a favourite track of mine anyway, though–the way the chorus cuts through that shuffling slump without actually lifting the tone (just the energy!) is pretty magnificent. That the whole thing is lyrically self-deprecating (ie, “everything is screwed up, which is all just a day’s work for me…”), but with the same shrugging disinterest and twist of wry awareness that permeate’s E’s songwriting, whether it’s truly poignant pains of the well-known variety (his family history is a gigantic pile of sadness and loss) or just this kind of self-ribbing.
An actual relatively famous single as Eels tracks go, “Saturday Morning” is a lot shinier and more upbeat than its predecessor. It’s oddly cleaner, even as the guitar lead is squawky like E likes it³. The vocals do go right into falsetto, which is not a new thing for Eels, but may make the most sense it ever has when it’s placed in a song sung from the point of view of a wired kid who has woken up alone and wants some company for the best day of the week a kid has.
Though I’m often left thinking of the Weird Al original song of the same title, “The Good Old Days” is one of E’s better shruggingly pessimistic ballads. It’s a world that’s not all that great, really, and neither is he, for the woman to whom he sings. But, who knows? Maybe this is as good as it gets–maybe the kids out there enjoying it like any other day, maybe the contrast with a bad dream–maybe the two of them just need to make these the good old days. It’s a quietly pretty song, with E’s voice at its surface-morose best, and a very fragile acoustic guitar track backed by a sad, sweet sliding one. It’s engaging in its simplicity–or maybe because of it, or maybe some combination of the two.
Building on a set of very “lo-fi” simple tracks, including a 1-2, 1-2 drum machine, E sings right up at the microphone, an approach he seems to use to imply a kind of immediacy, intimacy, and frankness. Warm keys and incredibly spare guitar join him for the chorus and bring a brightened edge to the song at an entirely appropriate moment, as he sings: “If there’s a God up there, something above/God shine your light down here/Shine on the love/Love of the loveless”, though it drops away again for the next verse. It rejoins moments earlier when the chorus returns this time, though. And this time he repeats the title a few more times, one of them emphatic and passionate. The bridge appears and has a moment of anticipatory tension, growing and growing and–dropped on its face, not violently, just with a matter-of-fact sort of tone, which is an E trademark at this point. But then the song holds its warm edge, and E starts to latch onto that passion he flashed earlier, the song managing a kind of strength that is not belied at all by a still slow pace and instrumentation that, while brightened, is still spare and overall light. It’s a clever and interesting trick, actually, and one of the other songs I’ve always liked on the record.
While I’ve always felt Beautiful Freak was an aberration in E’s discography, the phrase itself manages to encapsulate the overall sense of E’s approach to songwriting: pretty, but unusual, and juxtaposed oddly. “Dirty Girl” reminds me of this because it starts with a nice guitar line in isolation, but takes a sharp turn when Butch drops in for E’s first verse, which begins: “I like a girl with a dirty mouth…” The chorus is wonderful over its broken, half-dissonant but actually quite pretty chords. That same style is used for a solo section, and the style lets it really fill the track out, as if the chord is splintering so that it can fill any remaining cracks around it. It’s like the solo moment allows this trick to reveal itself, where it comes off as a clean, flat surface behind E’s voice in the chorus. It should be no shock at this point that, though Butch’s beat is very uptempo and cheery, the song itself is anything but–yet continues to avoid mopeyness.
The tiniest of intros precedes “Agony”–a call for a new take, and then a quick run up and down some keys cheerfully. It makes a funny kind of sense, as the song that follows is one of the most purely miserable songs E has done–it’s self-aware enough to avoid the sense of pure self-pity, but it has no real wry edge. It’s all keys and drum machine-style beat to start–and the keys have a reverb and electronic tone that lets their chords curl off like the unsettled floor of a body of water when something hits it–slow motion waves that are but the side effect of the real force at play. Strangled and heavily muted 4th beat guitar chords give way to heavily phased and distorted keys that seem to swallow the rest of the track, the low end swelling beneath them and creating a somewhat disorienting sense to the song.
“Rock Hard Times” has the kind of intro that says, “Hey, this is about to be a really catchy song, so we need to kind of prepare you for it”–at least, in the alt-rock kind of vernacular, it does, I think. A solid four-on-the-floor beat and a nicely back-and-forth bounce to the tune make it a catchy tune indeed, with a wonderful chorus–more misery, but with a kind of determined hope behind them. And after a nice, restrained solo section, the keys take over for an organ-style solo of their own. E’s voice and the very pointed notes of the actually near-monotonic guitar backing are the real stars, though, the former riding across the bed-of-nails of the latter like a steadily bumpy ride continuing readily forward.
Heavy on slide, the kind that makes people say a song is “country-tinged”, “Restraining Order Blues” is a song I might place in that pantheon of “stalker songs”, but most of those tend to be ones that don’t explicitly state it in both the title and lyrics that reference the judge who approved the order. It’s just another off-kilter source for E to write a knowingly melodramatic paean to an unattainable and unrequited love. One gets the impression that it does bear some more resemblance to a stalker song I’ve already covered, in that that song’s author described it more as infatuation or attraction that has been taken entirely too far–rather than the explicit (or even implied) threat of some of the others out there. Which is apparently enough in some cases to confuse people as to how acceptable it is, or whether, in this context, a restraining order would be overreaction (answer: most likely, it wouldn’t).
Probably my favourite song when the record came out, “Lone Wolf” has a chugging, punctuated forward momentum. It is interestingly a sort of distant, fuzzy analogue to future track “Hombre Lobo” (title track of the album that came out six years after this one). It’s a defiant and proud track, though not one swollen with hubris, really. It’s not that E is describing himself as amazingly independent–just a definitive introverted sort of person. Even in its slightly re-arranged version on Sixteen Tons (Ten Songs), composed of re-workings of Eels songs for Morning Becomes Eclectic, there’s a power to the song that the original version is concretely built from, even at its starting point of drum machine and heavily strummed acoustic.
The bass on “Wrong About Bobby” starts the song off on its own, and tells us we’re in for something more akin to the earlier chunk of Eels history. Unsurprisingly, then, “Wrong About Bobby” is the closest relative to “Saturday Morning” on the album, with the strongest solo, an upbeat tempo and more cheerful guitars than in most of the other tracks. Butch does his signature Eels beat, and E does his story-teller voice, the one that doesn’t tie the lyrics as directly to himself. It ends with a strangely produced, half-reversed outro that bridges it nicely into the next track.
“Numbered Days” is perhaps the saddest and prettiest track on the record–it’s not actually all that openly miserable in tone, but there’s this underlying feel to the chords, like they’re bright-faced and hopeful, but you can just see their approaching emotional doom the entire time. Maybe it’s the fact that it avoids snares and cymbals so completely for half the track–even the bass drum just following the bass guitar. When the snare and cymbal are finally allowed to enter, they bring with them the carefully meted out, extremely forceful single piano notes that don’t sour the sound, really, they just sort of take it back down to earth. The power in them is a kind of finality, a kind of, “No, things aren’t going to turn out quite so well as you might think.”
Always a confusing track to see the title of, “Fashion Awards” harkens back to the simple, child-like sounds of tracks like “Jeannie’s Diary” and “Daisies of the Galaxy” from three years prior. E’s voice is all falsetto, and the guitar he plays is delicate and fragile. Even though Koool G. Murder’s (really) bass is firm, the delicacy of the song overall is not lost. When keys begin to act as backing chorus to the guitar, when Butch’s drums enter–it still doesn’t change. The fragility is largely retained in the falsetto vocals, as well as the intense, fatalistic (and disturbingly uncaring) refrain of “…Nobody said that the world was fair/And if they did say so, well then…/…We’ll blow off our heads in despair.” It’s so absurd a reaction, so over-the-top, that it swings all the way out past seeming self-pitying or attention-seeking (or, thankfully, serious) without actually losing the feeling that leads toward that statement anyway.
Perhaps in keeping with everyone calling Electro-Shock Blues depressing and Daisies of the Galaxy cheerful despite E’s insistence that each is the opposite, I think “Somebody Loves You” marks the definitive moment in the record, and thus readily counters the insistence that it’s nothing but an exercise in misery, and, for some, a crossing of the line he so readily balanced before. The swing of the opening chords points toward rays of light in the distance, but strong ones. The chorus they are pointing to comes sooner than expected, though there’s a swing down to really kick it into the stratosphere right before it hits. And when it hits…boy, what a song to inspire in moments that one might feel the rest of the album fits for. It acknowledges current sadness, but gives inspiration for progressing past it: “Somebody loves you/And you’re gonna make it through…” I think for E–based, at least, on his comments on Daisies–knowingly and deliberately chose this as a final track, and as a moment that, then, defines the totality of the record, even in its contrast. There is passion, sincerity, earnestness, and even some kind of truth in the way he sings that chorus: it’s easy to believe it, even if you may think otherwise–at the least, that he sincerely means that it simply has to be true.
I’ve spent much of my time since 2003 considering Shootenanny! the “plain Jane” of the Eels oeuvre. Maybe it’s the cover art, maybe it’s after the shifting styles of Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy managed to finally explode into the strong but wildly erratic Souljacker two years before and so little could seem anything but musically banal in comparison. Maybe it is the most “plain” of their records. I’m not sure–it was Butch’s last full contribution, and it was the first album I heard new from the Eels, and a band I fall in love with then hear new material from is often in for a rocky moment or three. As I’ve listened to this record again, particularly having to pay attention (else this would be an exercise in linguistic masturbation at best: I’m writing for the music, not for the writing, and would not want it otherwise) I feel either time has been kind, or I was too harsh. It’s still hard to look at that plain cover and get an evocation of the feelings it instills, but maybe that was the point–even the interior is a scattered set of studio photographs, nothing really indicating anything about the songs.
I’m not sure at all, what it is, or was, though I think I was not alone in initial disappointment–but I rescind that pretty emphatically now. This is an extremely good record, which I’ve unfortunately missed for much of the last ten years. Shame on me, I guess!
¹AC/DC, Alice in Chains, Aphex Twin, At the Drive-In, The Band, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Cars, Eric Clapton, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Deftones, Dire Straits, and a few I did, of course know of, but didn’t go out of my way to listen to, like the Beach Boys, who I followed John into in college. And, yes: the one who reviewed Album – Generic Flipper and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That will either make no sense to you or complete sense, I think.
²Not an extensive list. Just Amazon, eBay, and Discogs.
³I’ll never forget the interview I read over ten years ago, where he said that he liked noises that made people check their stereos because they were afraid they might be broken.