Mark Oliver Everett was passionate about music even as a toddler. Growing up in Virginia, he was obsessed with his older sister’s record collection. By age six, he talked his parents into buying a used drum kit at a garage sale.
Soon, pounding on the drums wasn’t enough. By his teen years, Everett (son of famed Astrophysicist, Hugh Everett) was proficient on guitar and piano. Living in a community full of boys named Mark, Everett first shortened his name to M.E. and finally settled on the economical moniker, E.
Not long after turning 19, E’s father died rather suddenly. With encouragement from his family, E relocated to Los Angeles in his early 20s, hoping for a career in music.
By 1992, E had a record deal with Polydor and released two solo records, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop. Both efforts delighted pure pop enthusiasts, recalling the eccentric charms of Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks. Unfortunately both were commercial failures.
Tired of struggling within the limitations of a solo act, E decided to form a band. Hooking up with bassist Tommy Walter and drummer Jonathan “Butch” Norton, Eels were born in late 1995.
In 1996, Eels were the first band signed to Dreamworks, (the boutique label founded by David Geffen and Steven Spielberg). The band’s debut, Beautiful Freak was released the same year. The irresistible single, “Novocaine For The Soul” was a huge hit on Alternative radio and MTV, (back when MTV played music videos).
Before E could really relax and bask in the success of the debut, he was dealt a double blow. His troubled older sister commited suicide and his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Rather than sublimate the loss and heartache, E channeled the tragedies into his art. The result was the Eels cathartic and soulful sophomore effort, Electro-Shock Blues.
More elegant Eels music followed: 2000’s Daisies Of The Galaxy was sharp hybrid of Baroque Trip-Hop. In 2001, E collaborated with P.J. Harvey producer, John Parrish to create Souljacker.
Recorded in just 10 days, Shootenanny, the band’s 5th album was released in 2003. It received some stiff competition from MC Honky’s debut “I Am The Messiah.” (MC Honky is E’s alleged alter-ego.)
By 2005, the Eels had parted company with Dreamworks, signing with indie label, Vagrant. Once again, the band challenged the status quo with Blinking Lights And Other Revelations, a 33 song double record.
Although Eels was conceived as a group project, the only real constant has been E. After Tommy and Butch left the original line-up, a variety of musicians rotated in and out of the band.
But since 2009, Eels has been E, The Chet, Kool G Murder, P-Boo and Knuckles. Between 2009 and 2010 they rolled out a trilogy, El Hombre, End Times and Tomorrow Morning. Each examined the themes of desire, destruction and renewal. In his down time, E wrote a well-received autobiography, “Things Your Grandchildren Should Know.”
The new album, their 10th studio effort, offers a variation on their tried and true recording techniques. For the first time the band co-wrote the entire album in the studio. The result is aptly titled Wonderful, Glorious.
The record opens with “Bombs Away.” The track is anchored by a pounding Tom Tom beat, and static-electric percussion that buzzes and jolts. Over twangy, Spaghetti Western guitars, E’s vocals are whispery and conspiratorial, mapping out a strategy for a more honest existence… “I’ve had enough of being complacent, I’ve had enough of being a mouse/ I’ll no longer keep my mouth shut, bombs away gonna shake the house.”
Wrapped in distorto guitars, sand-blasted synths and a tick-tock beat, “Kinda Fuzzy” is just that. E’s pugnacious vocals match his combative words… “It’s a tangled cobweb that I weave, the dusty room of an aching mind/I’m feeling kinda fuzzy but the future looks bright, don’t mess with me cause I’m up for the fight.”
E’s usual ornate instincts are absent on three tracks, “Peach Blossom,” a sweet ode to nature dipped in clattering drums and scuzz-tone guitars.
“New Alphabet” blends sticky blues riffs and a bare-bones beat. The lyrics are a whispered mental-health check list both rueful and introspective. Finally, “Open My Present” is a sharp treatise on instant gratification. Guitars drenched in reverb ride roughshod over a fractious melody and skittering percussion.
The best tracks here are outward looking paeans to friendship, “Stick Together” and “You’re My Friend.” The former is built on a tribal “George Of The Jungle” rhythm. Guitars snake through a thicket of percussion as E’s double-tracked vocals pledge undying loyalty…. “Take comfort in knowing I’m okay with anything you may do or you may say/We’re always in quite good company if I’m with you and you know you are with me.”
On the latter, E drops the smart-ass façade in favor of a tender homage to a pal… “you’re my friend, from the day we met til the bitter end.” The percussion crackles like a stylus wearing the grooves of an LP, the melody is laced with swirly organ fills and twinkly glockenspiel.
E has always walked the line between sarcasm and sensitivity. Wonderful, Glorious extends this tradition. While the upbeat tracks here are pretty badass, it’s the slower songs that give the album heart.
“Accident Prone” is a wistful pas de deux between E’s plaintive vocals and honeyed guitar notes. The tentative “On The Ropes” is both bittersweet and optimistic, using a boxing metaphor for life’s eternal struggles.
On “The Turnaround” E sketches out a desolate childhood in first person… “I always bit the hand that beat me and they wrote me off/ Was easy not to care, never trusted anyone/Don’t see why I should now.” The tender melody belies the brutal topic.
Other stand out tracks include the “True Original” a sweet tribute to a fellow songwriter and the tentative “Building A Shrine, which features whistle-y Ennio Morricone style instrumentation.
The album closes with the impossibly catchy title track. Powered by pulsating bass lines, ethereal Beach Boys-styled harmonies and a jangly guitar hook. Here E offers up an uncharacteristic declaration of optimism… “My love is beautiful and here for the taking.”
For 17 years E has worn a comfortable cloak of cynicism. On Wonderful, Glorious he finally throws caution to the wind and wears his heart on his sleeve. The result is the Eels most satisfying effort to date.