A Man Called E (1991) ***1/2
Mark Oliver Everett is the name, and this isn't his actual debut; he released an album on an independent label in the 1980s under his real name, an album that has subsequently vanished off the earth (almost literally; sightings on Ebay are legendary and mythic, and fetch legendarily mythic prices). This, however, is his major label splash and first of two albums released under the E moniker. Penning all the songs and performing the lion's share of the instrumentation (just a little help from his friends), this is a gem of 10 perfectly crafted lush-pop songs ("Symphony for Toy Piano in G," is a 30 second joke-take). Everett had been kicking around in L.A. studios for several years learning the trade in production, engineering, and studio musicianship, and it shows in the good and the bad. As expected, the professionalism in the playing is top notch and the production is crystalline faultless, and as expected given those positives, the flip side is a slickly glib glossiness. The one-man band approach does make it sound a bit thin and dinky, and the '80s weren't quite over yet - drum machines and chintzy synths mark the results as dated. Oh well, such shortcomings of overproduction cheese generally come with such soft-rock terrain, so deal with that or don't deal with this album at all. The tunes, which generally stick to the genre of piano pop (sometimes softly strummed acoustic guitar based), are excellent and if it weren't for the length (32:07), I'd rate this higher. E's songs glide off the ear like Hershey's Kisses: heavenly sweet pop miniatures. Even when stretched to the 3 1/2 minute length, the songs feel a bit fractured - the Guided By Voices of lushly overproduced pop, if you will.
E's hoarsely charred tenor delivers songs that generally convey a bitter sense of melancholy, or to put it in simpler terms, this dude is seriously depressed. Not just in the lyrics, which deal in such standard subject matter as alienation and the pining for love, but mostly in the yearning, minor key melodicism - the songs all sound sad, even when the words aren't necessarily so. Not that he's entirely miserable - he displays flashes of occasional bright optimism in a few tunes and lyrics; not enough to convince me of a healthy emotional balance, but more on this relatively innocent debut than on later Eels albums, where he would truly wallow in his self-inflicted misery. "Are You & Me Gonna Happen," is utterly winsome in its capturing of the half-hopeful, fluttery heart moment of incipient romance possibly just around the corner; but that's as cheery as it gets. Songs like the ultra-bouncy "I've Been Kicked Around" and Penny Lane name-dropping "Nowheresville" apply the well-seasoned pop trick of peppy, upbeat music married to lyrics that - well, just look the titles. In fact, that's the trick to the entire album: it's too winsomely, lushly melodic and brightly musical for a depressive goth landscape - there's nothing remotely dark about this record. It's just sad; very, very sad. Melancholy - that is the word.
Snippets of all the songs in 20 seconds - someone compiled a Youtube better than my review! Hope it stays up a while, 'cause this LP is one long-out of print tough puppy to find.