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Eels Cast a Spell with Extreme Witchcraft

A new Eels album is always cause for celebration and this, their 14th, finds Eels leader Mark Oliver Everett aka E, re-teaming with writer/producer John Parish for some rock and roll fun on Extreme Witchcraft.

For me, Eels have many faces. Sometimes euphoric, sometimes melancholy, sometimes with strings. But me, I like my Eels best of all when they rock. And on Extreme Witchcraft, they rock hard. As well they might, considering that the last time E and Parish worked together, the product was the rock perfection of Souljacker (2001). So could this be considered Souljacker Pt 2? Well yes. And no.

Opener ‘Amateur Hour’ finds E on fine, positive form declaring, “The sun was shining; Birds making beautiful sounds,” and it’s a sublime start to the record. More a leftover from 2020’s Earth to Dora than a rock n roll monster. The cheerful streak continues with the Colin Firth-baiting “Good Night on Earth,” a riff-heavy ode to being happy no matter what. A close lyrical and musical cousin of Souljacker cut “Dog-Faced Boy.”

Side A highlight  “Strawberries and Popcorn”—dedicated to eating whatever you like when you like and seemingly inspired by E’s son Archie—bears more than a passing resemblance to rather wonderful “Saturday Morning” from the equally wonderful Eels LP, Shootenany. There’s a whimsy and innocence here that the best Eels tracks often inspire in the listener.

If “Strawberries & Popcorn” is all Innocence, then “Steam Engine” is all Experience. Coming on with a Lulu shout and then straight into a Beatles-inspired beat and riff, E sings about ‘Sissy’ and declaring ‘Man we’re gonna dance’ as the melody barrels along like a long lost Motown groove.

Solo E composition “Grandfather Clock Strikes Twelve” is a distillation of the classic Eels sound. Less rock and roll, more rolling drums and and abstract references to Heaven and Earth. Side A is rounded off with the fragile lament to isolation “Stumbling Bee.” The bruised optimism of E shines through here as he laments, ‘My Heart is busted up, but not broke,’ before finishing with a determined, ‘I’m gonna find my way.’

As Side A of Extreme Witchcraft finishes, it’s clear that the promised rock and roll is here, perhaps not the hot and heavy SoulJacker rock of yesteryear, but a classic rock sound. A bit of Beatles here, a bit of blues and Motown there. And it works.

Nowhere is this classic rock Eels sound more prevalent than Side B opener ‘The Magic’. More riffs, driving drums and seductive lyrics.

Extreme Witchcraft feels at its best here, with E and the band having lots of fun, and ‘The Magic’ feels like a firm live favorite in-waiting. It seems that, even after all this time, Eels know just how to push the good time button.

The E/Parish axis seems at its most obvious on ‘Better Living Through Desperation’. A close relation to another Souljacker track—‘Jungle Telegraph.’ Everything is looser, groovier even, than ‘The Magic’ but a definite treat for those that were looking forward to John Parish being involved again after all this time.

The bruised, honest and confessional ‘So Anyway’ is one of those Eels tracks that could be on any album. Fragile in its construction and disarmingly honest in its lyrical content, it’s the kind of brief, beautiful honesty that the band have excelled at throughout their long and varied career.  Juxtaposed with this is the rocking ‘What it Isn’t.’ The hot and heavy cacophony you’ve been waiting for. All explosive musical flourishes and confrontational “shut up” from E, who finds himself kicking against those who just accept the bad stuff in life. E, it would seem, preferring to go down swinging that just accept the status quo.

Since the seemingly cathartic release of The Cautionary Tales LP (2014), the pain that was often all too raw in an Eels LP has been tempered with optimism, or at the very least, a determination to find the silver lining of every cloud. Nowhere is this determination more apparent on Extreme Witchcraft  than ‘Learning While I Lose.’ A distillation of the ‘classic’ Eels sound it sits nicely alongside understated album closer ‘I Know You’re Right’. Both tracks reminding the listener of the fragility, beauty and indeed the optimism of E’s world.

So, a cause for celebration indeed. The world of Eels is still wonderful, glorious. And its a world that remains steadfastly optimistic. And it rocks.

Written by Matthew Campbell

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