After Souljacker was released, nothing was ever quite the same again for the Eels. Part of it must have felt fantastic because the band really thrived; it was as though Souljacker blew open a floodgate which spontaneously made new sounds, experiments with different moods, vibes and ideas fair game to explore. Liberated, Mark Everett threw out his old rule book and decided that he wanted to push some boundaries; he focused his attention on a new Eels lineup (John Parish and Adam Siegel were sidelined and Joe Gore and Koool G Murder joined Butch Norton as full-time personnel) and, in the name of seeing what was possible on a short timeline, they recorded Shootenanny! live off the floor at Ocean Way Recording and Everett’s home studio (dubbed OneHitsVille U.S.A.) in Los Feliz, California.
Now, “live in the studio” and “live off the floor” recordings aren’t shockingly rare (virtually every album Steve Albini has ever recorded was done that way) but, for a band who had always been so meticulous in their song construction and design, it was definitely a risk – particularly for Everett, who also had a new set of sidemen on board. All those variables ensured that the results would be unknown until they were done and, for this band, that had to be at least a little unsettling.
While it may have been considered a gamble by someone, somewhere (at the band’s record label or management company), all misgivings that anyone might have had about Shootenanny! are completely dispelled with “All In A Day’s Work” – the sweet and lowdown hard luck blues rock anthem which open’s the album’s A-side. There, everything about Shootenanny! and what fans can expect of it is laid out pretty clearly; the music bleeds the emotional angle that the song takes early, and the song itself is stripped of most of the sonic baubles which usually hang from Eels’ music (electronics, a lot of overdubs etc.).
A few horns remain in the background here, but not many. No solos. No nonsense – just . It’s definitely a change of pace, but listeners will still be struck by the fact that it’s still so smooth! The blues acts as the base which opens the song and the crunchy rhythm of it gets the proverbial juices flowing, but the real money shot comes with the chorus; listeners will heave a sigh of relief as their nerves are soothed by the singer as he croons, “All in a day’s work.” It’s a perfect beginning.
…And the going only gets better after “All In A Day’s Work” lets out. The mood of the music brightens as “Saturday Morning” pulls a bit of childlike excitement (“Saturday morning – who’s gonna play with me?”) and dives nose-first int some very biting self-examination on “The Good Old Days” (scan lines like “I know I’m not too much of a bargain/ And you know that’s not what you bargained for”) and initiating a celebration of playing the outcast on “Love Of The Loveless” before finally just collapsing into a pseudo-self-indulgent pile in “Agony” to close the side. Were “Agony” performed by any other band in the world, the song would simply be written off as overwrought navel-gazing but, for Eels, the subject matter and the style are a bit of magic.
In this case, the “so far down, it’s almost six feet under” rhythm and lyrics which revolve around loss and misery (like “Friends tellin’ me that maybe I need/Some psychiatric help/ Yeah, they’re always quick to tell you/ Just how to get on with it/ But I look into the mirror/ And all I see is age, fear/ And agony”) paint the most poignant portrait of sadness on the album; it’s more direct here than anywhere else and listeners won’t be able to just shrug it off. After the rest of the side has worked them over emotionally and made them laugh (albeit wryly) and cry, “Agony” is the one they’ll really feel.
“Agony” cast an emotional hook, but it can be set deep and, when listeners turn the record over, they’ll discover some warm and sweet sounds which will salve some of the raw nerves touched by the A-side. The first song on the side, “Rock Hard Times,” might be one of the dearest songs Mark Everett has ever written in its own way. There, the song’s hero has already had a rough go through life and love as the title suggests, but he refuses to stay down; lines like “They told me that I couldn’t come back here again/ Took me for some kind of fool/ Said I was doing things that should never be done/ But I don’t care about their rules” defy the powers that be, and the music (which sounds a little like something Jakob Dylan may have written with The Wallflowers) furthers that point by defiantly looking up instead of down.
The up-looking trend set by “Rock Hard Times” endures consistently – in some of the strangest ways and places – as Shootenanny‘s B-side continues. “Restraining Order Blues,” for example, recasts a potentially miserable subject into a ballad for the lovelorn, while “Lone Wolf” scraps the obvious “rebel without a cause” potential of the title and focuses more on living clean and complication-free, all in hopes of “feelin’ fine” in the end. There are a couple of occasions on this side when Everett’s desire to downplay everything gets a little frustrating (see the far-too-mild music which goes with the hard times of “Numbered Days”) but, overall, the B-side songs complement their counterparts on the A-side – even if they in no way surpass them.
That said too though, the vinyl presentation of Shootenanny! does surpass its CD counterpart by setting up a physical dividing line to express the thematic difference between the sides; because everything rolls together so easily on CD, the emotional and sonic differences expressed on Shootenanny! get a little obscured but, on vinyl, there’s no way to escape it – all of Shootenanny! is brilliantly raw, but the physical limitations of vinyl illustrate that there is some subtlety in the sound.
(Geffen/Universal Music Enterprises)
Ground Control Magazine – Eels discography review (Part One)