Quick first thoughts:
Towards the end of the sixties, a bunch of bands looked back to the rawer, earlier and simpler days of rock’n’roll’n’soul – where rockers rocked, ballads emoted, and everything was plastered in reverb and echo. At the head of this revved up back-to-basics sprint were bands like the MC5 and the Stooges, in the mainstream the Beatles “Let It Be”/”Get Back” car-crash and Lennon’s recording pre-occupations after that point, “Beggar’s Banquet” onwards from the Stones, “The Universal” from the Small Faces... it was like psychedelia had finally disappeared up it’s own ass.
“Hombre Lobo” is the first self-consciously retro EELS recording, and it is to this soundworld –drawing on the first recorded infatuation of rock with it’s own history – that the album appears to reach. Nostalgia for nostalgia – how very modern. Conversely, it is the freshest E’s song writing has appeared since Souljacker in the early noughties. Surprisingly, it is to the first track on Souljacker – Dog Faced Boy – that it reaches conceptually.
Despite the “werewolf” theme, the generally impression is of a bunch of songs written, recorded and produced very quickly. Several have a charming “my first song” bounce to them, the occasionally leaden rhymes sounding naïve rather than gauche. The sounds are simple – crunchy-clean guitars, muted bass, dry, damped and heavily compressed percussion, with a frosting of antique electric keyboards. And though chord progressions and harmonies are more complex than the stilted musicality of “Blinking Lights”, arrangements are simplistic bordering on underdone. “The Look You Give That Guy”, for instance, is screaming out for a middle 8, a chorus, anything. “Tremendous Dynamite” and “Fresh Blood” are all build up, and the “lust-for-life” backing of “Beginners Luck” is bordering on karaoke cack-handedness. And “The Longing” – a calculated appeal to the E-as-singer/songwriter fanbase – drags woefully.
Koool G Murder is the lynchpin Eel this time round, contributing guitars, bass, backing vocals and keyboards alongside recording and mixing the album. And unusually, the only other musician on the album (if you exclude the “...with strings” outtake that is “all the beautiful things” is drummer Knuckles – the usual galaxy of guest stars appear not to have been invited to this particular party. Also missing in action is “beat specialist” Ryan Boesch – meaning that the studio sheen of other more layered eels productions is gone, compare the very similar in feel “Shootenanny!” album for instance. Koool G’s basslines are the musical stand-out for me this time round, he seems to be channelling McCartney and Entwhistle simultaneously which is no mean feat.
Not feral enough to truly rock out (though maybe live...), not sweet enough to convince on ballads, the three man (and a dog) EELS sit slightly awkwardly between the two poles, reminding me rather of pre-Revolver Beatles, a resemblance that the obviously rushed recording and arrangement can only heighten.
But on its own terms the album convinces. The songs are stronger and more passionately delivered than anything since Souljacker, E’s voice – when not plastered in distortion – is more melodic, lyrics are more convincing. And I am very keen to hear these songs performed live – maybe with a bigger band (a motown-style brass section would be particularly fitting.)
But I do miss the studio experimentation of early EELS – the almost random instrumentation, Mike Simpson and Ryan Boesch’s hip-hop influenced beats, hell – even the mellotron choir patches and the Wurlitzer piano. It is beginning to look like those days are gone – it’s been nearly a decade since the multi-layered acoustic guitars faded out at the end of “What Is This Note?” and nothing as stimulating has ever faded in. I love late 60s garage rock, but it was the first sign of the reflexivity of rock – now everything refers to the past and to see one of the few genuinely modern bands fall prey to the large record collection disease is a little sad.