Eels - Beautiful Freak

SOMETIMES, IT feels like the USA is entirely populated by weird kids. That every high school is filled with dysfunctional loners moping around each other and never connecting. That the tanned, grinning, sports-loving jocks they purport to despise are, in fact, the minority, the real odd ones out. Ah yes, I have looked deep into the face of contemporary America: it wears big thick specs held together with Sellotape and smells a bit funny.

Then again, maybe that impression's created by the kind of Americans who end up in bands these days - bands like the already-moderately-enormous Eels. Take the dorkish quirks of They Might Be Giants, update with a soupon of post-grunge inadequacy, add Beck's 'Loser', taken literally, and you have, essentially, 'Beautiful Freak'. "When I came into this world they slapped me/And every day since then I'm slapped again," croaks their leader, E, in 'Flower', "Tomorrow's King an unsightly coward/You see I know I'm gonna win." E's manifesto - repeated ad nauseam over this debut album's dozen tracks - is, in effect, a Californian bastardisation of Pulp's 'Mis-shapes', a mitigated form of self-loathing. Yes, he and his (presumably, very few) mates are deeply strange. Yes, no-one likes him very much. Yes, life can be a bit of a pain when you're this special, but - hey! - he's proud about not fitting in. Suicide isn't on the agenda any more. See, E knows he's alright, he knows he's better than all the mundane sloggers who surround him.

Not much new there, then. But 'Beautiful Freak' is remarkable for the sheer tenacity with which E pursues his theme. You'll have heard the crackly, insidious 'Novocaine For The Soul' by now, noted its curiously restrained grunge dynamics, how it takes a fairly conventional little song and tries so desperately hard to make it rather creepy. This pretty much is the template, both lyrically and musically, for the rest of 'Beautiful Freak'. Hence there are opiated lullabies, plinky-plonk plaintive pianos, fuzzily anthemic choruses and much duff blathering about how, "One day the world will be ready for you and wonder how they didn't see." Occasionally, it gets good: 'Rags To Rags' is Nirvana in an exceptionally fragile mood; the aforementioned 'Flower', with solemn and lovely choir samples threading through the song, does, for once, sound genuinely spooked.

Most of the time, however, it's all rather dull, never once coming close to the emotional resonance and beguiling otherness of, say, Sparklehorse, who share similar concerns. There are, still, some encouraging things about Eels' imminent superstardom. The way they appear to have harnessed indie credibility to mainstream adulation suggests the end of Britpop parochialism may be nigh. And their love of outrŽ noises - hissing samples, strafing, jagged solos in the middle of very average songs - is refreshingly experimental.

But the suspicion remains that Eels ultimately peddle a kind of legislated weirdness. Like ropier kindred spirits Cake and Nada Surf, it's as if their 'freak' mentality has been assimilated, cleaned up; as if the individuality that they champion has become a homogenised commodity. Perhaps, in one of those outbursts of pre-millennial madness we were warned about, America's most lucrative export is turning out to be the all-American geek. Now that's really scary.


John Mulvey