Brought to You by the Letter E
Enjoying Eels, Elvis, Enders

Ever-Expanding Empire

As promised, this week’s column is brought to you by the letter E. I have probably taken the concept too far, but I’ll let you be the judge.

So I’ve been keeping this under wraps for a bit while I get my footing, but I’ve taken a few steps towards tm3am’s inevitable world domination. The biggest deal is, a regularly-updated blog that I hope will serve as a supplement and a companion to this column.

I have so much music coming at me on a regular basis that it’s almost impossible to keep up. That’s where the blog will come in – I plan to post first-listen reactions to new albums, music news I find interesting, and an occasional look at the albums that shaped me. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean the end of the column – rather, I hope the two outlets will intertwine nicely, with the quick-hit stuff on the blog and the more considered reviews here.

Also, I’ve decided to accept comments on the blog, something I’ve resisted when it comes to the column. I want tm3am to be just my voice, but on the blog, I’m hoping to spark some interesting conversations. I’ve met some smart, opinionated people during my nearly nine years working on this column, and I hope to hear from you. There will be a post on the blog each time a column is uploaded in this space, so feel free to comment over there on what you read here.

The other step I’ve taken is to join Twitter. I haven’t used it much yet, because I haven’t quite figured out how to differentiate my Twitter presence from my Facebook and blog entities, but feel free to follow me anyway, if you like. I’m at Today, social media, tomorrow the world!

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Expecting Excellence

If there’s one album this summer I’m breathlessly awaiting, it’s Armistice, the sophomore effort from New Orleans quartet Mute Math. Their 2006 debut was pretty much perfect, a mix of Radiohead and the Police (among other things), and was packed full of terrific songs. I still can’t get enough of it, particularly “Chaos,” “Noticed” and the sublime “You Are Mine.”

The band has taken its sweet time on the follow-up, and apparently they trashed everything and started over at least once. But now it’s done, and it’s out on August 18. If you go here, you can hear the first track on the record, “The Nerve.” It’s a blazingly fast drum-and-bass assault with an explosive one-note chorus that slams through everything it has in less than three minutes. It sounds absolutely nothing like Mute Math.

I’ve been trying to like this for days now. I have grown to appreciate what’s there – the production is amazing, the energy is palpable, the drums (the drums!) are fantastic. This will probably kill live. But as the first taste of an album one of my favorite new bands has been toiling over for years, I have to say, it’s not much of a song. Hopefully this is just an opening salvo, and the memorable pop songs kick in later. But nestled at track four on Armistice is the band’s contribution to the Twilight soundtrack, “Spotlight,” which is in much the same vein – fast, loud, melody-deficient. So we’ll see if this is just the new Mute Math sound.

I’m still excited about this album, but now I think I’m expecting something completely different from what I thought I’d be getting. August 18 cannot come quickly enough – I can’t wait to see how “The Nerve” fits in with whatever else they’ve come up with.

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Enjoying Eels Effortlessly

I cannot explain just why I like the Eels.

I’ve never been able to. I remember buying their second album (and first out-and-out masterpiece), Electro-Shock Blues, and being so conflicted over it that I played it for my friend Chris. He liked it, and didn’t understand why I was struggling, but the answer is simple: while the band is more than the sum of its parts, none of its parts thrill me in the slightest. So I can’t figure out just why I like the result so much.

Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett, known simply as E, writes very simple little songs. His melodies are basic, although he stumbles over a good hook now and then. His lyrics are at best trite and at worst atrocious. His voice is limited and ragged, his playing is rudimentary, and his albums are (mostly) short and slight. If it sounds like I’m being mean here, remember that I really like this band, and E in particular. I know all these drawbacks are true, and yet I keep listening, and I keep enjoying.

It’s been four years since E delivered his second out-and-out masterpiece, the two-CD Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Everett’s music is always better when he digs deep, and talks about his childhood and family struggles. Blinking Lights was all about this, in some cases directly addressing his brilliant yet emotionally cold father, and over 93 minutes worked through pain to come out on the other side, full of hope. That album joined Electro-Shock to form the twin pillars of E’s catalog – the rest of his work is enjoyable and random, but sits a few levels down.

That’s where his new one, Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire, fits in. On this record, Everett is back to writing fun pop-rock and sweet ballads in equal measure, and expressing his joy and heartbreak in simple terms. E promises a lot with his long, shaggy beard – that and the record’s title make you think he’s going to some Howlin’ Wolf places, and a couple of the songs are louder and bluesier than the Eels have been before. “Tremendous Dynamite” and “Fresh Blood,” in particular, are built on piercing electric guitars and levels-in-the-red distorted vocals.

But most of Hombre Lobo just sounds like the Eels. “That Look You Give That Guy” is a delightful little pop number about jealousy, “In My Dreams” is a simple, circular ballad of imaginary contentment, and “My Timing is Off” is a sad-sack Everett special, buoyed by a Byrds-style guitar strum and melody. I’m particularly fond of the ‘80s reggae feel of “Beginner’s Luck” and the naked, live vibe of closing love song “Ordinary Man.” But despite some sloppier production and a few more incendiary moments, this is just another Eels album.

And you know what? I like it just as much as I’ve ever liked Everett’s work. Granted, it all works better if you don’t read the lyric sheet. Here’s a sample of the pedestrian rhymes that pepper this record, from “The Longing”: “The longing is a pain, a heavy pressure on my chest, it rarely leaves, and my day becomes a quest, to try not to think about her, and all that she brings, forget about her magic, all the beautiful things…” Yes, that’s a real verse, not something I borrowed from a fourth-grade poetry class.

But I can’t explain it. I really like Hombre Lobo – I’ve played it probably 30 times since buying it, and while it’s unspooling, the trite elements just fade into the background. Eels music is like baking something delicious from very basic ingredients. I can’t point to one thing I like about this album in isolation, but when mixed all together, the resulting concoction is thoroughly enjoyable. If you ever liked the Eels, you’ll like this.

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Elvis’ Elegant Experiments

Here is what I don’t understand about Elvis Costello’s critics.

If you look at the last 10 Costello albums, only two of them – 2002’s When I Was Cruel and last year’s Momofuku – would qualify as rock and roll records. Open that up to his last 15 albums, and you get two more, 1994’s Brutal Youth and 1996’s All This Useless Beauty, and some argue that Beauty isn’t a rock album either. Just in the last 10 years, Costello has given us a full-length ballet, a record of orchestrated ballads, a jazz album, a country-rock weeper, and a stunning New Orleans funk collaboration with Allen Toussaint. He’s a jack of all trades, a versatile and restless performer who refuses to be pigeonholed.

So why do some critics insist on demeaning these efforts as “genre exercises?” The jazz, orchestral and soul albums aren’t detours, they’re essential parts of his artistic makeup. I understand, these critics want Costello to write My Aim is True and Armed Forces again, perhaps not realizing that his earliest works were the only ones on which he was pigeonholed. At the time, he was writing unreleased gems like the country-fied “Stranger in the House,” and angling to work with Johnny Cash. I don’t quite get why some want to shove him back into a box he worked so hard to get out of.

All of which brings us to another of these “genre exercises,” Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. Fresh off the barnburning Momofuku, Costello has teamed with T-Bone Burnett for the first time since the great King of America in 1986. The pair assembled a group of superb bluegrass players, and they’ve turned out a down-home delight. This is one of Costello’s earthiest records, and Burnett’s production is brilliant as usual – this may as well have been recorded standing in a circle around one microphone, so authentic is the mood.

But wait, it gets weirder. Some years ago, Costello wrote an opera about Hans Christian Anderson, called The Secret Songs. That beast has never seen the light of day, but Costello has arranged some of its songs for this ensemble, and while the result is jarring at first, this drumless band manages to roll with the complex pieces marvelously. The first of these, “She Handed Me a Mirror,” comes off like a particularly well-written old-time ballad, and by the end, I can barely imagine this played any other way.

Still, the best things here are the more straightforward ones. “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is just awesome, a lengthy tale of depravity and temptation that is, to borrow a Costello phrase, almost blues. “My All Time Doll” would probably work well with thumping drums and electric guitars, but its slinky groove works very well in this setting. And an unexpected highlight is “Complicated Shadows,” originally released on Beauty – this song has never sounded better, stripped of its rock production.

If Secret, Profane and Sugarcane is a genre exercise, it’s a successful one. But to me, it’s just further proof of what Costello does – he writes songs, and finds interesting groups of musicians to play them with. A lot of this record shouldn’t work, but it does, and I’m constantly amazed at how many different styles of music Costello can adapt his unmistakable, meaty voice to fit. If you’re still longing for another This Year’s Model while listening to this, you’ll probably miss its many charms. This is just another great little Elvis Costello album in a career filled with them.

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Ex-Every-man Enders Entertains, Exasperates

I am a sucker for ambition.

Give me a two-CD (or even better, a three-CD) album, and I’ll check it out without hesitation. Later this year, I’m going to pick up Oneida’s Rated O, a triple-album that serves as part two of a triptych, even though I’ve never really heard the band at all. My favorite Frank Zappa albums are the ones on which he stretches out his conceptual ideas over two or three hours. I love concept records, I love rock operas, I love lengthy experiments – there’s just something about hanging over the edge and betting on your own vision that inspires me.

So when Arthur “Ace” Enders led his post-punk band The Early November through a three-CD musical novel in 2006 with The Mother, The Mechanic and the Path, I was so there. The concept borrowed from Rashomon – the same events, viewed through three different lenses, representing three members of a dysfunctional family – and the execution was fantastic. The 22 songs that made up The Mechanic and The Mother were all well-written and engaging, and the 50-minute radio play that was The Path was one of the most original pieces of the year. It’s not bragging if you can do it, and Enders did it.

It probably should be no surprise that this monster was the final album from The Early November. After the band collapsed in a heap, it took some time for Enders to dig himself out. But now he’s back with his solo debut, When I Hit the Ground, released under the name Ace Enders and a Million Different People. And while I like this disc well enough, Enders has reined in every ounce of ambition he once had, concentrating on glossy, melodic rock tunes.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with glossy, melodic rock tunes, of course. “Reaction” is a singalong winner, “The Only Thing I Have” would make for a good single, and with “Sweeter Light,” he’s written one of my favorite Ace Enders songs. Much of this album slows things down – three of the last four tracks are varying shades of epic balladry, and they’re all good songs. Enders’ voice has improved immeasurably for this record – gone are the shakier moments that used to plague Early November albums, and he’s emerged as a fine, strong frontman.

No, there’s nothing wrong with this album, but there’s nothing that distinguishes it from a million others just like it. Though catchy, the songs are all pretty simple, and the production is big and radio-ready. This is obviously a bid for wider popularity – one song is actually called “Take the Money and Run” – and it’s no accident Enders is on tour with the All-American Rejects right now. I wish him luck, because when he’s giving himself free rein, he’s a very good songwriter, and I feel like this album just doesn’t capture all the sides of him.

But that’s fine. Enders is only 27, and hopefully has dozens more albums in him. If he wants to make an undeniably fun, hummable little disc like this one, and then bankroll some more ambitious projects later, that’s entirely up to him. And he didn’t phone it in on When I Hit the Ground – this record is enjoyable, if slight and unoriginal, and it sounds great. I miss the creativity that leaped off previous Enders discs, but this is a fine modern rock album, and hopefully will find its way onto radio playlists and into CD players across the country.

But next time, Enders, I’m expecting more. I know you have it in you.

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Exit, Everyone

Next week, a look at two of the coolest gimmicks I’ve seen in quite some time. After that, new things from Dream Theater, the Mars Volta, Moby, Wilco, and Jack White’s new band The Dead Weather. Don’t forget to drop by the tm3am blog and leave me a comment or two about this column. Thanks for reading.

See you in line Tuesday morning.