Music » Music Etc.

BEAUTIFUL FREAK

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Eels frontman Mark Everett heading to a parallel universe…on a riding mower. Courtesy photos
Eels' mastermind Mark Everett tries to convince himself that these are the good old days

Mark Oliver Everett knows what it's like to be Prince.

Granted, Everett (aka E), leader of the idiosyncratic L.A. rock band the Eels, isn't a Napoleonic sex machine with a fetish for stiletto heels, bare-assed canary yellow pants, and guitars that squirt purple splooge. But Everett, like the Paisley Park monarch, struggles with the dilemma of being a prolific songwriter/record-maker in an era when artists are expected to make one album every four years.

While he's not actively kvetching about his treatment at the hands of Dreamworks Records, Everett will say that he's handed the label more records than they have chosen to release.

"I try to heed the warnings of Prince, and try to keep some sort of common sense and overview from a career standpoint," Everett says. "But I just can't seem to help it. I just write and record a lot. It's what I like to do, and I seem to have some burning need to do it. In the meantime, I'm actively pursuing a slower pace, taking my time before putting the next one out. Meanwhile, the box set grows and grows."

"You can't rebel against something, you can't comment on culture, if your comments are for sale."
— Mark Everett
The Eels' latest release, the characteristically smart and acerbic Shootenanny! (Everett's mock-hip term for a shooting spree), had a rapid gestation period, even by Everett's formidable standards. Recorded in only 10 days last November, Shootenanny! initially feels like a return to basics after the sonic apocalypse of last year's ambitious Souljacker, except that the Eels have no basics to return to.

Everett is a production wizard by nature, and even this relatively straightforward collection gushes with creative madness: the gratingly distorted vocal effect on "All in a Day's Work"; the buzz-bomb guitar vibrato on the self-pitying ballad "Agony"; the willfully cheap drum machine underpinning "Love of the Loveless"; and the overdriven drums on "Lone Wolf."

 
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Coming after the grim menace of anthems like "Dog Faced Boy" and "That's Not Really Funny," Shootenanny! does feel faintly life affirming, particularly for an album whose opening couplet is: "When I was born the doctor said/there's something wrong inside that baby head." Like his spiritual godfather, Randy Newman, Everett is too smart and cynical to swallow society's daily hypocrisies, but you sometimes get the feeling that he wishes he could.

Where Shootenanny! differs from previous Eels albums is in its cautious sense of resignation, bordering on acceptance. We hear Everett acknowledging that he's a loner, a guy at odds with popular culture. Counterbalancing the existential despair of songs like "Agony" and "Rock Hard Times," the spare acoustic ballad "The Good Old Days," takes a page from Carly Simon's "Anticipation," suggesting "these could be the good old days."

"It wasn't as pessimistic as saying, 'Maybe this is as good as it gets,' like Jack Nicholson in that movie," Everett says. "That song gets described as nostalgic and it's actually the opposite. It's about not being nostalgic, about appreciating the moment now, so you don't have to just appreciate it as nostalgia."

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Optimism doesn't come easily to Everett. The son of genius physicist Dr. Hugh Everett III - the man who invented the concept of parallel universes - Everett grew up in Virginia in a family that he describes as "pretty odd," with an emotionally troubled older sister and a father so blinded by science he rarely focused on his kids.

"He died when I was 19, but I didn't even know he was famous or anything, 'cause it's not like you have physicist groupies knocking on the door - although he did get calls from them," Everett cracks. "But these kinds of people aren't necessarily great family men. Einstein wasn't such a great family man." Everett's sister, Elizabeth, committed suicide in 1996, inspiring the bleak 1998 album Electro-Shock Blues, whose kickoff track, "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor," went way beyond harrowing ("My name's Elizabeth/my life is shit and piss").

Because his own angst is often unbearably real, Everett reserves his deepest contempt for shiny bands who claim the meaningless category of alternative-rock. He cites "edgy" as his least favorite word, and is convinced that the only reason major companies like American Express, McDonald's and Coca-Cola seek out his music for commercials is that they're cluelessly trying to appropriate rebellion.

 
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"They want something that's alternative, rebelling against culture. But that's the problem. You can't rebel against something, you can't comment on culture, if your comments are for sale.

"When I sing a song called 'Beautiful Freak,' in my heart it's truly about being an individual - not being some alterna-kid who's missed the point and wears tattoos and nose rings, like all the other alterna-kids. If I'm going to sell a song like that for a car, I'm doing more than selling myself down the river. I'm selling other people down the river who believe in the song."

If Everett shares Prince's all-consuming drive to make music, these two modern eccentrics also share an avowed wish to time-travel to the '60s, when artists were expected to crank out songs at a ridiculously fast pace.

"Of course, they were all on speed," Everett says. "As soon as they stopped taking speed and they switched to LSD, it was down to one album a year and no touring. Now we know the dangers of drugs like speed, so we can't do it. So we are on the two- or three-year plan now. But I drink a lot of green tea. That keeps the prolific output going." •


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