Eels front man A Man Called E wrote both “Novocaine for the Soul” (a catchily morose request for a stronger-than-chicken-soup cure for pain, with guitars that flopped and quivered like upset stomachs) and Electro-Shock Blues (a little-heard, seemingly dictated-in-the-funeral-home-foyer album about family members committing suicide and dying of cancer, and the attendant survivor’s guilt and hating-oneself-over-seemingly-improper-grieving-priorities). He writes the kinds of songs you want to root for, darkly empathetic, conscious of both gallows humor’s usefulness and its limits, full of characters who obsess on whether or not they’ve got a wire crossed upstairs until they actually go nuts and don’t notice. Trouble is, he’s also got a drag-ass voice, like every day is his first morning after swearing off caffeine, like the guy who imitated Tom Waits in that infamous Doritos commercial, like he’s reading the shit through his apartment-building intercom—his voice makes even Beck, who shares with E a Dust Brothers connection, a zip code, and a design fetish for pictures of jackasses, sound like the owner of a golden throat by comparison. Even when his characters enthrallingly map the tubes they’re going down, so that the words spiral the way those fingerprint-shaped suburbs do in aerial photos, E’s affect stays landscaped-flat, a liability that makes you want to go, “Dude, write a book”—or just tune out till somebody fetes E’s band with a tribute album.
A better record than Daisies of the Galaxy could have made this E’s year. With Teen People now setting the dialogue aboveground, depressive McCartneyesque singer-songwriters with essentially gray-area-folkie taste are America’s newest oppressed minority—thanks to Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, it’s actually punk, revolutionary, to be an undersold critics’ fave playing stuff that would have been pop a decade ago, sorta like how Black Sheep and 3rd Bass can suddenly claim underground-rap status again. And it’s about time somebody showed the faux-naïf, where-did-these-orchestral-arrangements-come-from? crowd down at the Elephant 6 compound how hard a tuba chart can work—why not a yard-sale eclecticist like E, whose rattletrap compositions seem to have been shaped less by the breakbeat era (“No Samples Were Harmed in the Making of This Record,” say his liner notes) than by the weird artist juxtapositions on mid-’70s Warner Brothers loss-leaders compilations?
The best anecdote in the last big Eels profile I read (Bill Holdship’s “E! The True Hollywood Story,” in New Times L.A.) was the one about how E re-upped his deal at Dreamworks hoping to be “the Randy Newman of [the] label,” by which I assume he meant the one gifted-yet-commercially-nowhere crank singer-songwriter on the roster, the lovable misanthrope making obscene gestures at the Spielberg photo op. Then Dreamworks signed the real Randy Newman. It’s somehow appropriate, then, that the best song on Galaxy is the one that sounds like a 12 Songs outtake: “I Like Birds” is about a rocket-launch spectator who gets creeped out by the astronauts’ trophy wives, complains about all the “mean little people” down at the supermarket (presumably because they got no reason to live), then lets potential feathered friends know that “if you’re small and on a search, I’ve got a feeder for you to perch on.”
As for the rest, it’s kinda grim: sadly thwackless drums, tentative jazz-funk (call it Medeski, Martin & Might), and observational songwriting that slips way too easily into pat ain’t-life-strange shtick. “Grace Kelly’s Blues” (acoustic, rimshots, pedal steel; end-of-verse kicker referencing a “Paint It Black” chord change) stitches together verses about lonely truckers, disaffected Hot Dog on a Stick workers (are there any other kind?), the late actress-turned-Princess-of-Monaco, and (really) an unhappy mime. It’s probably meant as a reflection on how we’re all united by our alienation, by the hurt we can’t name, and by a nagging sense of things that matter slipping away, but the sketches zip by so underdeveloped it’s less a song than a storyboard. Or a video treatment, maybe one of those “Everybody Hurts” meets City of Angels kinds of things.
There’s also much discussion on Galaxy of selling one’s soul, not exchanging it for wooden nickels, not selling it to the Devil, the ineffectiveness of the Rolling Stone classifieds section as a forum for soul-selling, etc. Which is all a little quaint. Besides, if you’re E, and you’ve got like a hit and a half to your credit, is the soul trade really a seller’s market?