Some bands love the reputations they have made for themselves, but others seem to spend much of their time trying their best to escape them. Eels are a prime example of the latter. The Californian quintet, the brainchild of frontman Mark Everett (a.k.a. ‘E’) are one of alt-rocks most under-appreciated delights, yet have developed a pretty widespread reputation for audible misery over their career. This presumption comes despite the fact that much of their material is decidedly upbeat, while their least cheery album, 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues, was recorded in the aftermath of E’s mother contracting cancer and his sister committing suicide – so it was hardly going to be a light-hearted affair. One thing that is true, though, is that the majority of their work has a distinctive air of melancholy about it, and so I came into this gig expecting a fairly subdued atmosphere with little in the way of energy.
When E and his band came bouncing on to the intensely catchy "Flyswatter," however, it immediately became obvious that such premeditations were way off the mark. Complete with beards, shades and a jazzy horn section, the band rocketed through with a swagger that few would associate with them, and this was only a taster of what was to come. "That’s Not Really Funny," "Grace Kelly Blues" and "Tremendous Dynamite" were performed with a similar zest which seemingly caught the rest of the crowd off guard too, judging by it’s apparently surprised reaction. In fact, on this nights evidence, as well as that on recent album Tomorrow Morning, it would seem that E has finally – whisper it – settled in a happy spot.
That’s certainly what his beaming expression suggested, and perhaps due to this uncharacteristic joyfulness the frontman experimented with his back catalogue in a way few would have predicted beforehand. Fan favourite "I Like Birds," for instance was beefed up to the point where it became a vivacious punk rocker, while plenty of other numbers were given a far fuller sound with the inclusion of the full band. This tinkering worked both ways, though, with other songs being stripped down to their bare bones revealing just how well written they are. The most obvious example of this was probably the classic "Last Stop: This Town," which even without it’s incredible lullaby-like hook proved an emotive trip back to E’s darkest days, and drew probably the warmest reception of the night.
As well as proving that he's well and truly recovered from those times, though, this show demonstrated was just how strong a catalogue of songs E has at his disposal. Ever since breaking through with "Novocaine For The Soul" (another of the nights highlights) E has displayed an uncanny knack of consistently and prolifically coming up with alt-pop gems which pepper each and every one of his releases. But while his records have been known to be a little patchy, there’s no hiding in the live environment, and it’s only here that you realise how many truly great songs he’s written. Those songs sound even better when he sings them with a smile on his face, and thankfully that’s something that’s been occuring a lot more often as of late, and was certainly the case here.
You can stream some of the band's songs, including "Novocaine For The Soul," "Last Stop: This Town" and "I Like Birds" on their Myspace.