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Eels depress wonderfully

Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations
9 out of 10
By Michael Petitti
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, May 4, 2005
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With many albums coming out these days on dual-disc format, with a bonus DVD, it's refreshing to find an artist who runs away from the spotlight. Enter Mark Oliver Everett, the social outcast known simply as E. As frontman to the wonderfully depressing pop collective Eels, E shrouds himself in secrecy. His biography reveals that he is the only living member of his family with mother, father and sister all deceased. Even photos of E often reveal a bearded man of mystery.

However, the cracked window to E's mind can best be examined on his latest, ambitious double album, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Eels have never made upbeat music, but Blinking Lights seems particularly depressing. The album is based on a cycle from birth to old age and it should come with a mood warning instead of the usual parental advisory.

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations amazes time and again with downtrodden gem after downtrodden gem. The first disc includes the jazzy, brass dirge of "Son of a Bitch," the piano and trumpet plod of "Suicide Life" and the outstanding slide guitar whine of "Railroad Man," which showcases E's grizzled voice - a perfect match for his lonely reflections.

"I feel like an old railroad man/Who's really tried the best that he can/To make his life add up to something good/But this engine no longer burns on wood/And I guess I may never understand/The times that I'm living are not made for a railroad man."

Interestingly, the upbeat numbers on the first disc are equally impressive. The organ and bass bump of "Mother Mary" leads into a wonderfully explosive chorus full of crashing drums, ringing guitars and yelping vocals. Meanwhile, Tom Waits (an obvious influence) guests, sort of, adding some nice barks to the humorous surf-rock boogie of "Going Fetal": "Everyone is going fetal/ It's the dance the kids all feel/ Just get down under your desk/ Feels like your momma's nest, alright."

While the second disc does not vary much in sound, it includes just as many precious pop nuggets. "Old Shit/New Shit" is a ghostly piece of upbeat pop with humming guitar, clanging drums and strained vocals.

Both discs contain a number of instrumental "themes," which aid in the album's transition in life from youth to adulthood. Although generally good, there are a few too many. However, a nodding reference to Tom Waits can be found in "Bride of Theme from Blinking Lights," which swipes its title from the Wait's instrumental "Bride of Rain Dogs" from his famous Rain Dogs album. This makes for a fun piece of music trivia that can be used to impress friends, family and clergy alike.

Along those lines, the guest appearances on both albums are often exciting and intriguing without being overbearing. Peter Buck (R.E.M.) adds some nice, delayed guitar strokes and bass thumps on "To Lick Your Boots." Elsewhere, John Sebastian (The Lovin' Spoonful!) plays a mean autoharp on the instrumental lullaby "Dusk: A Peach in the Orchard."

Despite the overwhelming sadness and melancholy throughout Blinking Lights, E seems driven by an inherent desire for happiness. As such, the second disc closes with two of the best contemplative songs of his career. The trumpet and piano shuffle of "Losing Streak" enhance his lyrics of desired redemption, while the building climax of "Things the Grandchildren Should Know" hints at signs of cagey optimism. The drums and guitar chug along, the slide guitar howls and E sing-speaks his lyrics as he attempts to deal with his issues.

"I don't leave the house much/I don't like being around people/Makes me nervous and weird/I don't like going to shows either/It's better for me to stay home/Some might think it means I hate people/But that's not quite right."

While Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is not a party album, it's not completely a buzzkill. It is merely E's thoughts and demons put to music. Sometimes upbeat and biting, sometimes quiet and miserable, it's an album as complex as the musician behind it.

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