When Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett (or E, as he likes to be known) is feeling really low but writing tunes really well, it can lead to a strangely beautiful, cathartic listening experience. By cloaking his moribund outlook and unyielding self-pity in witty phrases, eclectic instrumental experimentation, and unexpected arrangements -- as on 1998's gut-wrenching, genre-melding Electro-Shock Blues -- he's able to transform his personal hell into something magically meaningful and memorable.

But when that misery is drawn upon in the name of mediocre songcraft -- the kind that permeates Eels' fifth studio album, Shootenanny! -- the effect couldn't be more awkward and tiresome. Soundwise, these fourteen tracks are awash in generic, twangy-jangly pop that fails to deliver a novel melody while wandering vaguely through watered-down Wilco-land.

The nocturnal moper "Agony" illustrates this album's dominant flaw: E's sudden, odd inability to articulate his anguish in even a remotely compelling way. "Every day I'm here, all I feel is sheer agony," he moans, like a downer pal who's finally exhausted your capacity for compassion. Likewise, "Rock Hard Times" fails to generate much sympathy or understanding. Finally, there's the forced sentimentality of "The Good Old Days": "I like waking up after a bad dream/Makes it feel like life ain't bad." Come on, E, we know you can do better than this.


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