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"I feel like an old railroad man," Mark Everett, a.k.a. E, sings during one of the many forlorn weepers on the Eels' indie-label debut. He sounds like one too, because his vocal filters work like reverse purifiers, enhancing grit and sediment. After two ill-fated ventures into rocky territory, Everett returns to quiet desolation on these 33 tracks, and the low-key backdrops cast his grimly dramatic delivery in stark relief. On this brutally efficient double-disc collection, most of the tunes live slow and die young, with Everett's final lines lingering like unanswered prayers. Exceptions include ironic numbers ("Going Fetal" introduces an unlikely dance craze) and a few jarringly assertive hip-hop-style tracks that pair drum thumps with gloomy piano trills. Everett sabotages a sunrise ("Wake up and smell the stink of their lives") and draws from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of pessimistic aphorisms ("The trouble with dreams is, they don't come true"). What makes his songs charming, though, is that he lets hope escape his Pandora's box. Everett's narrators don't wallow in their woes -- they desperately want to flee what one song calls the suicide life. And the chamber-pop melodies, often incongruously upbeat, will be waiting for them if things turn around.
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Andrew Miller

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