The history of the Eels is a long and strange one. Originally created to give frontman E (Mark Oliver Everett) the impression that he was a group instead of a solo artist (he went by the "E" moniker for his first three albums), the band scored a quick hit with "Novocaine for the Soul", the first single from their first album, the platinum-selling "Beautiful Freak". The video for "Novocaine" was often played on MTV alongside the late wave of post-grunge guitar pop that included one-hit wonders like Marcy Playground and Toadies and what have unfortunately become more established acts like Matchbox Twenty and Third Eye Blind.
But the Eels weren't really like any of these other bands; they weren't Pixies Lite or Pearl Jam wanna-bes, they were a pure pop group whose sound was a logical extension of E's solo career. In fact, it may have been their dedication to his vision (rather than desperate scrambling after popular appeal and record sales) that drove them to their current state of relative obscurity. The follow-up to "Beautiful Freak", the breathtaking "Electro-Shock Blues", was a poignant, heartbreaking, and funny meditation on the deaths of E's mother (by cancer) and sister (by suicide). It remains their best work by far, but the subject matter didn't lend itself easily to radio singles, and it passed mostly unnoticed by the listening public. "Daisies of the Galaxy", released 2 years after "Electro-Shock", was in some ways a recovery album that tried to get back to a happy place after the grief that was the key component of "Electro-Shock", and while it may have been a more radio-friendly pop record, it still failed to make any ripples on the US airwaves.
Through it all, E's unique style has endured, combining pop guitar hooks with odd little samples and scratches of electronica coated by the whiskey-infused honey of E's singing. The mood of each Eels album is distinctive, but the sound is unmistakable. Their latest album, "Souljacker" continues to rely on this core sound while once again bringing the band into new musical territory.
In some ways, this is really the first album of new material for the Eels in years. "Electro-Shock" was written in 1997, when the band's hit single made them a hot commodity, and even though they didn't record it until two years later, all of the songs on "Daisies of the Galaxy" were written at the same time. And now that he has used the last two albums to pass through the stages of grief to recovery, E is ready to rock again.
"Souljacker" is built around the idea that our modern culture, with its emphasis on material gain and earthly possessions, is stealing our souls without us even knowing it. E came up with this concept while at a 10-day meditation retreat, during which he was supposed to speak to no one, read nothing, and not write anything. Of course, he cracked when he came up with this idea (and the first song to spring from it, "Souljacker part II"), and he surreptitiously started keeping notes on toilet paper.
From the very first notes, this record crackles with a energy and power that are rarely seen in other Eels releases, although it's clear that E is as much as master of the power chord as he is the pop melody. "Dog Faced Boy", a joking reference to the bearded, hooded, sunglasses-wearing persona that E adopted for this record, starts off with a droning buzzsaw guitar which is quickly joined by a clockwork drumbeat. By the first chorus, the guitar has crescendoed to an anguished wail, and there is no doubt the E is out to make a Rock record with a capital "R".
Several other songs follow in this vein"Souljacker part I", "Teenage Witch", and "What Is This Note?" spring immediately to mind. But E doesn't forget about the quirky, textured pop that remains the bedrock of the Eels' sound. "That's Not Really Funny", while incorporating a bombastic guitar lick, is a strange, pulsating mess of jazz, creepy synths, and chaos, and "World of Shit" uses backwards percussion, a ghostly piano, and a languid guitar to create the sweet sound of sadness.
"Fresh Feeling" (which uses a sample from the orchestral accompaniment on Electro-Shock's "My Descent Into Madness") is a calm, uplifting number that would not have been out of place on "Daisies", and is a nice companion piece to the cheery "Friendly Ghost". "Jungle Telegraph" is a buoyant, jubilant number that is probably the weirdest take on a straight blues song that I have ever heard. The centerpiece of the album is the quietly mesmerizing "Souljacker part II", which consists of little more than E's barely audible voice crooning above synthesized flutes.
As good as this album is, there are still a few clunkers that detract from the overall impact of the album. "Woman Driving Man Sleeping" isn't terrible, but it's not that great, either, and "Bus Stop Boxer" sounds like a leftover from E's less subtle earlier works.
All in all, this is another amazing record from a band with one of the most compelling discographies of the last 10 years. If you're going to buy only one Eels album, "Electro-Shock Blues" should still be your first choice, but this isn't a bad runner-up.