The Eels' Electro Shock Blues
The Phone Call in the Middle of the Night

"If Beautiful Freak was our greeting card to the world, then Electro-Shock Blues is the phone call in the middle of the night that the world doesn't want to answer."
--Mark Everett (E), the Eels

Like the Residents, the Eels' sound seems to spring from the bottom of kitchen drains:cut-up, a little metallic, overripe if you get too close. But where the Residents' narratives sprawl from circus to sea shanty, the Eels narrators are lucky to make it to the corner store and back. Song titles like "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor" and "My Descent Into Madness" only scratch the surface; if you're looking for road music, you'd be better served by John Cage.

The variations on a (minor-scale) theme are so incremental as to go almost unnoticed. Only by altering his keyboard sound or processing his vocals does E achieve any musical nuance. Grant Lee Phillips and Lisa Germano are said to augment the bass/keys/drums lineup, but I can't detect them. From toy piano to harpsichord, the emotional landscape here is pretty pinched. Two exceptions. The Farfisa setting and upfront rhythm section on "Cancer for the Cure" proclaim the album's manifesto: America is ground zero for chronic disease and preoccupation with same. And the rumba beat and staggering horn charts of "Hospital Food" announce that the band's getting downright whimsical, a la Swordfish-era Tom Waits.

According to the record company fact sheet, a year's worth of family tragedy informs this album (No duh**Going to Your Funeral,* parts 1 and 2?) Less hook-laden than Beautiful Freak ("Novocaine for the Soul"), less syrupy than the string arrangements on E's solo stuff, Electro-Shock Blues is neither bluesy (no improvisation/no emotion) nor shocking (no affect). But like the mousy girl with no makeup who parts her mouth just slightly at your glance, that may be the album's ultimate charm. How do you find your way in?

--Dale Simms
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