Arts: Three men and a canary

Ben Thompson wises up to the gimmick gestures of the Eels

The eel is a primeval creature that has stayed pretty much the same since a time before Oasis first entered the album charts. The Eels by contrast are very highly evolved. This shrink-wrapped trio from Echo Park in California have 1997 written through their souls like a stick of rock. And with their thrillingly sleek single "Novocaine for the Soul" poised to sweep them into a state of global enormousness, this gig at the Garage in Islington is the probably the last British appearance where the crowd will be able to smell them as well as see them.

The Eels record for the Dreamworks label (a plucky independent concern operated by basement entrepreneurs David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Stephen Spielberg), who are clearly taking no chances with their talented proteges. Prior to the band making their entrance, the most officious roadie in rock history doesn't just put towels out for them, he tests their drinks to check for poison. A canary stands patiently in a cage at the side of the stage, ready to give up its life in the event of an enemy gas attack.

The desert-dry stage manner of songwriter/ guitarist/ hammond organ maestro E suggests that this band are well able to look after themselves however. Their singer may look like the forgotten lovechild of Damon Albarn and Derek Nimmo, but his voice has the happy ability to quote from a legion of distinguished West Coast forbears (Donald Fagen, Jackson Browne, Belinda Carlisle even) without ever sounding explicitly derivative. And their album, Beautiful Freak (to be released on 24 Feb), has enough deceptively simple melodies to keep the MTV nation whistling well into the next millennium

The Eels flout the restrictions of triohood with admirable pizazz; shifting seamlessly from one novelty to another - a telephone ("I'm kinda busy right now, I'm trying to rock London"), a banjo, a manhole cover, a jug of pebbles poured over the cymbals - without ever losing the plot of the song. The only question that remains to be answered, is, well, what is the plot of the song? What exactly is it that is being got across so clearly and with such great proficiency here?

Comparisons with Beck are erroneous as the boy Hansen's grand mission to unite the modern and the archaic is his and his alone. There is a worrying absence of original thought at the heart of a song like "Guest List" and it seems strange that the number which seems to bring the most intense response from the band themselves is a semi-ironic cover version (a virus in American music at the moment - see also Ben Folds Five's "Video Killed The Radio Star") of Sophie B Hawkins' "Damn, I wish I was Your Lover". A sneaking suspicion remains that, after Nirvana, no new American band wants to overdraw on its emotional capital.

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