Have you noticed there are a lot of bands these days with animal names?
A brief sampling: Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, Deer Tick, Arctic Monkeys, Grizzly Bear, Minus the Bear, Modest Mouse, Cat Power, The Bird and the Bee, Sea Wolf, Dr. Dog, Mastodon, Cage the Elephant, Swans, Gold Panda, Pelican, Caribou, Porcupine Tree, Horse the Band, the Fruit Bats, the Mountain Goats, Wolfmother, Doves. Heck, even Andrew Bird sort of qualifies.
This week and next, it’s “Welcome to the Jungle” meets “At the Zoo” here at TM3AM. We have three bands with animal names and one with an animal album title, and if you think that’s just a flimsy excuse to corral a bunch of unrelated reviews together, well, you might be on to something. But keep it our little secret, ‘kay?
The truth is this: I will be out of state most of next week, so I need easy and fast material, and I need to write it today. There. I’m glad we had this little sharing moment. I feel much closer to you now. I hope this won’t impact your enjoyment of the reviews themselves, which I promise are up to the standard you’ve come to expect here at Tuesday Morning 3 A.M., however low that may be. It is my pleasure to serve you.
Now read, you bastard. Read!
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If you’d told me in 1996 that one day I’d be reviewing the “Novocaine for the Soul” band’s 10th album on the internet, I would have said, “What the hell is the internet?” But then I would have laughed. It was obvious from just one listen to Beautiful Freak, the Eels’ debut album, that they were a one-hit wonder, and they’d soon (ahem) sputter out.
And yet, here we are in 2013, and not only has E and his band survived, they’ve thrived. Rather than try to emulate the success of “Novocaine” (still their only major hit), Eels quickly gave us (among other records) a devastating concept album (1998’s Electro-Shock Blues), a distorted rock throwdown (2001’s Souljacker), a double album of remarkable scope (2005’s Blinking Lights and Other Revelations), and most recently, a linked trilogy about the end of a relationship and the start of a new one (2009’s Hombre Lobo and 2010’s End Times and Tomorrow Morning). They have a proven track record now, and their live shows are legendary.
So here’s album number 10, Wonderful, Glorious. Now, with a title like that, they’re just setting themselves up. But happily, this record not only lives up to its own adjectives, it’s the most fun you’re likely to have listening to this band. It stands head and shoulders above the recent trilogy, and that was pretty damn good. Seventeen years into their recording career, Eels seem to be hitting their stride.
The common read on leader Mark Oliver Everett is that he’s a complicated man who writes uncomplicated songs. Even his stage name is simple. Everett’s tunes use plain language and easily digestible melodies to get twisty emotions across in the most direct way possible. I’m not sure why it works as well as it does, but E can sing the most banal line you’ve ever heard and somehow make you feel it. Part of the secret is his everyman voice. That phrase is used a lot to describe trained singers who sound a little raspy, but in E’s case, he really does sound like a regular guy.
Wonderful, Glorious contains 13 more Everett ditties (17 if you buy the deluxe edition), and while the lyrics retain his usual style, the music is among his most accomplished. While some previous Eels albums have conjured up the image of E alone in his basement, crying at his mixing desk, this is a full-band effort. The gang is all here: The Chet, Knuckles, Koool G Murder and P-Boo (yes, those are their names), and these songs sound like they were jammed out and refined live.
That’s not to say they sound like jams. “Bombs Away” opens the record on an intricate drum beat and a smoky riff, but the song recedes and roils back several times over its five minutes. It’s meticulously arranged, with synth interludes and well-placed percussion touches, and at one point it fades to nothing but vinyl record noise. It sticks to its crawling tempo throughout, but it serves as the mission statement for this uncommonly joyous album: “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…”
“Accident Prone” is a splendid E ballad about randomly stumbling into a new relationship. It’s followed by the earth-shaking “Peach Blossom,” which lurches ahead on a thunderous beat and a distorted, dirty synth bass riff. “Open the window, man, and smell the peach blossom,” E commands, and you have no choice but to listen. “New Alphabet” is similarly awesome, its slinky blues hiding a defiant sunshine lyric. “When the world stops making sense, I make a new alphabet,” E shouts over more of that fillings-rattling keyboard bass.
That live-band feel is crucial to an organ-fueled romp like “Stick Together” or a Black Keys-style blues shouter like “Open My Present.” But my favorite moments on Wonderful, Glorious find the band augmenting what would have been solo E tracks in the past. The superb “The Turnaround” is epic in scope, starting at a twinkle and ending up a rousing anthem. “Six bucks in my pocket, the shoes on my feet, the first step is out the door and onto the street,” E sings, and it sounds like the moment he finally believes himself free. “On the Ropes,” similarly, is a classic E song given great new dimensions. The chords and the sentiments are pure Everett: “Every time I find myself in this old bind, watching the death of my hopes, in the ring so long, gonna prove ‘em wrong, I’m not knocked out but I’m on the ropes…”
See? Simple, direct, yet effective. I used to hate myself for loving Eels, convinced it was some sort of deficiency – how could I enjoy something this determinedly uncomplicated? Eventually I just learned to let go and let it work for me. And it does. Wonderful, Glorious ends with its title track, a slinky, sorta-funky groove with lyrics like this: “The sum of all the love inside your heart will get you through your plight, it’s all right.” I love it anyway, and I love this album more than most. It’s pretty wonderful, and it’s kind of glorious.
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Seemingly at the other end of the lyrical spectrum is Scotland’s Frightened Rabbit, although they’re really not that far apart. Both Mark Everett and Scott Hutchison write about the joy of rising above, the euphoric swell of pride that comes from winning a long-fought struggle against oneself. The difference is, while E just comes out and says this stuff, Hutchison speaks in beautiful metaphors, in verse that is anything but pedestrian.
Which is why it’s ironic that the fourth Rabbit album is called Pedestrian Verse. Reportedly, Hutchison wrote those words on the cover of his lyric notebook this time out, reminding himself to keep things down to earth. Only he can say whether he succeeded. To my ears, while these words are certainly more inward-looking, they still ring with the same poetic, emotional touch Hutchison has brought to every Frightened Rabbit outing. Simply put, they’re wonderful, from the introspective “Acts of Man” to the fiery “Holy” to the final perfect metaphor, “The Oil Slick.” (“All the dark words pouring from my throat sound like an oil slick coating the wings we’ve grown…”)
The real story this time is the music, for while Hutchison turned his gaze inward, the band clearly decided to aim for the rafters. Pedestrian Verse is the Rabbit’s first album on a major label (Atlantic), and they’ve done the major label thing – they’ve expanded their sound to near-epic proportions. They still sound like Frightened Rabbit, thank goodness, but a bigger, more all-inclusive Frightened Rabbit. There’s a sweep and a grandeur to this album, and it was there before, but never to this level. The guitars sound wide as the sky, the drums crack like cannons, and when the band aims for majesty, as they do on “The Woodpile,” they get there and then some.
What keeps all of this from turning into an Arcade Fire album? Hutchison’s voice, that thick Scottish brogue, that workingman’s attitude. The same instrument that turned “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” into an anthem for the ages here keeps this group of fist-pumpers tethered to the ground, and that’s a good thing. For all its oceans of sound, Pedestrian Verse is actually a modest album, clocking in at 42 minutes, no song breaking the five-minute mark. If the band can keep this balance going for the rest of its career, it will be a glorious miracle.
They’ve managed it here, brilliantly. Any album that begins with the line, “I am that dickhead in the kitchen, giving wine to your best girl’s glass” is doing something right. “Acts of Man” is a fantastic opener, quietly setting the stage with pianos and slowly building to full power. Hutchison’s lyrics take a look around at “the fatty British average” and report back their dismal findings: “While a knight in shitty armor rips a drunk out of her dress, one man tears into another, hides a coward’s heart in a lion’s chest, not here, heroic acts of man…” The final lines are so perfect that I have to reproduce them whole:
“I have never wanted more to be your man, and build a house around you
But I am just like all the rest of them, sorry, selfish, trying to improve
I’m here, I’m here, not heroic but I try…”
If there’s a verse that sums up this album, there it is. “Holy” finds Hutchison sounding off – “Don’t mind being lonely, don’t need to be told, stop acting so holy, I know I’m full of holes” – while the band provides sufficient fury behind him. He’s adept at finding the holes himself. “If you want a saint you don’t want me,” he sings in “December’s Traditions,” and ends “Dead Now” with these words: “So will you love me in spite of these tics and inconsistencies, there is something wrong with me.”
“Nitrous Gas” finds Hutchison all but giving up: “If happiness won’t live with me, I think I can live with that, keep all of your oxygen, hand me the nitrous gas…” And in fact the album’s finale, “The Oil Slick,” seems like it will conclude things on a similar note. Hutchison begins in failure, unable to write a song of love for someone dear. “Only an idiot would swim through the shit I write, how can I talk of light and warmth, I’ve got a voice like a gutter in a toxic storm…”
But then he finds it, and it’s gorgeous: “There is light, but there’s a tunnel to crawl through, there is love but misery loves you, we’ve still got hope so I think we’ll be fine in these disastrous times…” That shaft of light is mirrored in the music, which rises up on powerful wings, shaking off the black tar and heading for the sun. It’s a splendid moment on a splendid album. Frightened Rabbit have always been a good band, but over these last two albums, you can hear them becoming a great one. The struggle, like every struggle Hutchison depicts, has been worth it. Every second.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.