Although it is officially the debut of the rock trio Eels, the 1996 album Beautiful Freak is in reality the third album by composer and performer Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by stage the name “E”. The collaboration of four studio producers (including Everett), this album is filled with simple tracks of moderate tempo which employ exquisite arrangements and production methods to deliver a unique listening experience.
A native of Virginia, Everett migrated to Southern California in pursuit of a music career. In the early 1990s, he released two solo albums (under the name ‘E’) on Polydor Records, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop. Released in 1993, this latter solo album included drummer Jonathan “Butch” Norton. However, with limited commercial success, E was in search of a new record deal and identity. Along with Norton and bassist Tommy Walter, the group “Eels” was formed, with the name chosen in part so group records would be placed next to E solo albums in record stores.
Eels were one of the first groups to sign with the new DreamWorks Records and they spent the early part of 1996 in the studio recording Beautiful Freak with producers Jon Brion, Mark Goldenberg and Michael Simpson.
Throughout the duration of Beautiful Freak, there are original and eccentric pop-oriented tunes with contrasting lyrical themes of melancholy and despair. “Susan’s House” features spoken vocals and Everett’s observations of human misery as he walks towards the home of an ex-girlfriend and musically features a sampled piano from an older recording by Gladys Knight & the Pips. The song is followed by grunge-oriented “Rags to Rags”, which features an interesting drum pattern by Norton as well as a strong overall rock arrangement during the choruses. The album opener was also the first single released by Eels, “Novocaine for the Soul”. Co-written by Everett and producer Mark Goldenberg, this track features a pleasant and steady rock arrangement with good melody which helped make it a minor international hit.
“Beautiful Freak”, the album’s title song, features electric piano and very somber vocals by Everett, While the lyrics are a little weak on this track, the surreal and sad mood makes up for this deficiency. Co-written by guest guitarist Jon Brion, “Not Ready Yet” is a sad tune about recovering from disaster and feeling the isolation of that situation. The longest track on the album, this song leaves plenty of room for musical grooves as it is bass and rhythm-driven with several guitar overdubs. “My Beloved Monster” with a very slight banjo before the electric guitar-driven song proper begins and, during the second verse and beyond a bouncy bass and feedback effects add a real edge to the sonic qualities of this song. Co-written by Keyboardist Jim Jacobsen who provides a cool synthesized choir, “Flower” may be the highlight of the entire album. Melodically and lyrically this track works very well as a sad slacker creed with the clever refrain; “everyone is trying to bum me out…”
The later part of the album has more solid tracks which remain within the spirit of the overall album while also introducing some nice new methods. “Guest List” is built on funky, descending bass while “Mental” features an upbeat bass/key riff by Walter and some hard rock chording in the choruses. “Spunky” has a lyrical sense of reserved enthusiasm which matches the song’s title as “Your Lucky Day in Hell” is soulful with cool rhythms, effects and high-registered vocals. The album wraps “Manchild”, the most traditional, “lover’s lament” ballad on the album, co-written by Jill Sobule, with a long, surreal fade-out with sound effects to usher out the album.
Following the release of Beautiful Freak, Eels toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Although Walter departed from the band in September 1997, Eels would go on to release ten further studio albums (to date) and have had a long and distinguished career.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1996 albums.