The eels are not your typical band. Nor have they released your typical debut album in beautiful freak. From the striking cover art (a young girl, on her hands and knees, with grossly enlarged eyes) to the song titles ("novocaine for the soul," "my beloved monster"), the eels don't swim in the comfortable pop seas that radio programmers drool over. Which is sad, since, under the layers of eccentricity, the trio has created an album that floats with a strange beauty and scratches at the brain with its sharp lyrics and clever music. Fortified with strings, loops and samples, beautiful freak slowly sucks the listener in.
On the phone from Berlin, where the band is at the tail end of the European-swing of their tour, including a few dates with Tricky, the band's singer/songwriter known simply as 'E' is feeling the effects of life on the road: "It seems like we've been touring forever. I really don't like it, I'd rather be home working in my studio. It's great playing to new people every night, but over here it's been difficult because of the language problem. But, I guess this is what I asked for when I got into this business."
Asked how their studio album, garnished with loops and samples, translates to the live stage he says, "We play straight. We don't use any samples because I feel that would be like cheating. I don't want it to be a Milli Vanilli concert. I want it to feel like what you see is what you get. Besides, it makes us have to reinterpret the songs in new ways and that opens our eyes a bit."
Perhaps what makes beautiful freak special is the care given to both sides of the equation: musicianship and lyrical strength. While, for lack of a better reference point, there is a definite Beck feel to the album (and considering that both artists chose to use producer Michael Simpson, one half of the Dust Brothers), E sees things a bit differently:
"There are definitely similarities, but I don't think it came from the Dust Brothers connection. We never even heard the album [Beck's Odelay]. They came out at the same time. I've worked on the songs for about two years now and they were almost complete before we met Mike. I can understand someone saying that, but I think Beck is more groove-oriented while we are more song-based. What really turned me onto Michael was his work on [the Beastie Boys'] Paul's Boutique and the stuff he did with Tone-loc. I thought that was a good example of pop music moving forward."
The connection of those artists to the eels' debut, however, is not that discernible and he quickly points out that "...a big lightbulb went on above my head when I realized that I could use sampling in the context of my songs and that it would add another dimension to the music."
Lyrically, E culls his words from the depression bin. While his life hasn't been pretty, he injects a shred of hope and humour into the songs that allows the razor blades to lie safely in the bathroom cabinet. "It's like the Motown formula. They would take a really sad lyric and put happy music to it. I didn't want a Chris Isaak career of making breakup record after breakup record. The hard part of putting an album together is what goes on it and what you have to throw away. We had about 70 songs for beautiful freak but only 12 made it on the record. I call it 'Which kittens do you drown?' And you don't want to drown any."
With attention to detail, even the album cover artwork hints at controversy. The child who graces the cover has had her eyes retouched to saucer-like proportions that many record buyers may find hard to swallow. E counters, "I think it's beautiful. The record company freaked out over the cover. Many people think it's scary. I was concerned about the little girl thinking 'What's wrong with my eyes, Mommy? Aren't they big enough already?'"
"You know the Nirvana baby [from the cover of Nevermind]? I know him. His name is Spencer. I thought about all the people that have his poster on their bedroom walls, naked with his dick hanging out, and a friend said, 'He's gonna go into bars when he's older and everyone is gonna know that he's well-hung.' The kid will probably use that as his pickup line for the rest of his life. I just hope that maybe our little girl will be famous too."
The eels play the Starfish Room, Friday, December 6th with Soul Coughing.
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