Over the course of five albums with The Eels, singer-songwriter Mark Oliver Everett, known professionally by the initial E, has done as much as J.D. Salinger to make mental illness a fit subject for entertainment. If E's tongue-in-cheek songs about manic-depression are "edgy" (his description), it's because the line between despair and parody is so thin.
Several years ago, the story goes, E was slipped a tape that was made by someone called MC Honky, a recording engineer who worked with Sinatra in the '60s and pioneered the art of sample collages in the '80s, a style he called "self-help rock." MC Honky, it turns out, is a side project of E and some buddies that sends up hip-hop style and the cut-and-paste aesthetic. There are, however, no real "raps" on MC Honky's debut, "I Am the Messiah." It's mostly funky instrumentals built around lounge-jazz samples, organ, rock guitar and heavy-duty drumming.
Funnier than the songs that E writes for The Eels, the music of MC Honky is also more compelling in its exploration of the dark side. Parodying DJ Shadow's found-sound style and Beck's appropriation of black attitude, E and his cohorts create a recognizable world inhabited by people with serious self-actualization problems: a woman who leaves a series of phone messages that become increasingly disjointed and desperate; a cool narcissist who delivers a Caucasian-style Barry White come-on; a DJ who, having not won "this year's freestyle rap competition," vents his disappointment using level-headed logic that quickly deteriorates into a petulant rant ("Next year I'll have four turntables and three microphones!").
Though the album's a lark, the music is by no means lightweight. In fact, it's easy to believe that E put more thought into "I Am the Messiah" than he did into the underwhelming new Eels album. Who would have thought a self-styled loser like Mark Oliver Everett was so adept at gospel, jazz, funk and even hip-hop? It pays to be slippery.