Record Review - 3 July 31 2003

On Eels’ fifth studio album, group visionary E discards the orchestra-pop nuances that have colored the band’s past works for a sparer musical foundation. This reserve complements Shootenanny!’s lyrical focus, as the album is largely a collection of Raymond Carver-esque sketches, still-lifes of sad sacks leading still lives. Appropriately for the Prozac Age, however, E’s characters are so accepting or indifferent to their fates that they don’t even perceive misery as a problem. “All I’ve got to show/For the seeds that didn’t grow/Is agony,” he intones on “Agony,” with the bone-dry, matter-of-fact air of a man reading his shopping list. “I like waking up after a bad dream/Makes it feel like life ain’t bad” is as close as these characters come to acknowledging their own hopelessness.

The musical structures that support these snapshots are serviceable enough, designed not to overshadow lines like “Judge made it clear/ I can’t be near you” (from the affecting “Restraining Order Blues”). But the tone remains even-keeled, almost upbeat, especially on the jaunty “Saturday Morning” and a handful of peppier, mid-tempo numbers like the peaceful “Love of the Loveless.” On one of these, E sings “I am fine, I am resigned to this/I am a lone wolf,” perfectly summing up Shootenanny!’s central motif.

Eels perform at Variety Playhouse Thurs, Aug. 7. $15.