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POP MUSIC | ALBUM REVIEW

What a 'Shock' to the System

**** EELS "Electro-Shock Blues" DreamWorks

October 18, 1998|Robert Hilburn

"Electro-Shock Blues" may be as close to a walk through the valley of the shadow of death as you'll find in pop music. It's a brilliant work that combines often conflicting emotions so skillfully that you are reminded at times of the childhood innocence of Brian Wilson, the wicked satire of Randy Newman and the soul-baring intensity of John Lennon.

With musical backgrounds ranging from cartoonish to hip-hop and symphonic, Eels frontman E not only shares his own feelings of horror and despair over the loss of loved ones, but he also captures in some songs the plight of those whose lives are slipping away.

As such song titles as "My Descent Into Madness" and "Cancer for the Cure" would caution, the themes are generally dark. Yet there are moments of levity--reflecting times when one is so numbed by sadness that the only way to survive is to fight back with humor. One song is expansive enough to include references to both Ol' Blue Eyes and Courtney Love, while another--the Zappa-esque "Hospital Food"--is eccentric enough to fit onto a Dr. Demento collection.

The only time you wonder whether E is being totally honest is on the final track. After so much mourning, the optimism of "P.S., You Rock My World" feels at first like a bit of a cheat, like one of those artificial happy endings often tacked onto a movie after sneak preview audiences have declared the original ending too downbeat.

Yet E found the strength in his own despair to write these songs--and not to acknowledge that liberating resilience would have been the real dishonesty. Ultimately, the upbeat ending works because it feels true.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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Hear the Music

* Excerpts from Eels' "Electro-Shock Blues" and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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