A year or two ago you knew where you were with American indie bands: somewhere grey and inhospitable. You could justifiably write off the lot - them and their ill-fitting jumble-sale clothes, their whining, "stream of consciousness" nonsense lyrics, their sloppy musicianship, and their all-round failure to realise that they would never be Nirvana, no matter how hard they tried (and they never tried hard enough).

Now, California's Eels have removed this certainty by approaching the stereotype, and then slithering far away just when you think you've caught them. Mike "E" Edwards, their singer/guitarist/songwriter, may be no stranger to the angst-ridden phrase, the grunge song structure and the Oxfam tracksuit top, but the Nirvana comparisons have been overstated. For a start, Nirvana's Nevermind was made back in 1991. Perhaps if Kurt Cobain had made it through his depression and been able to write about it articulately, had accomplished the planned collaboration with REM's Michael Stipe, listened to the samples and hip-hop beats on Beck's albums, and incorporated some of the softer textures of his own Unplugged album, perhaps then he could have made the Eels' debut, Beautiful Freak (Dreamworks). But he didn't. So the comparison only holds water in that the Eels are the best American band since Nirvana, and that global megastardom awaits them.

The comparison with REM is more instructive. The spoken verses of "Susan's House" bring to mind REM's "Belong"; "Manchild" is built on "Everybody Hurts" arpeggios; and like "Everybody Hurts", E's songs are the work of a wholeheartedly caring lyricist. On the moving "Beautiful Freak" he holds out a hand to the dispossessed: "Some people think you have a problem / But that problem lies only with them / Just because you are not like the others / That is why I love you ... I bet you are flying inside." If I were E, I'd be worried about inviting hordes of unstable, obsessive teenagers to break into my house and whisper that I was singing about them - but that just goes to prove that he's nicer than I am.

In NHS specs, and with a jutting chin and goatee beard (more accurately, a kiddee beard), E looks like Quentin Tarantino crossed with Morrissey, although on stage at the London Empire on Wednesday, his performance was that of Michael Stipe with the pretension stripped away, leaving the skewed wit and the deadpan theatricality (I particularly liked the way the band turned and bowed to each other at the end of "My Beloved Monster").

Add his sidekicks Tommy (bass) and Butch (drums), and you've got the most inventive live rock band I've seen since the one that backed PJ Harvey in 1995. On the first song, "Novocaine for the Soul", E played both keyboard and gutsy guitar, while Butch played bongos with one hand, and triangle, glockenspiel and shaker with the other. Here, for once, was someone who justified the curious "drums & percussion" job description that's printed on record sleeves to make the drummer feel better.

The Eels' firm belief in the benefits of multi-skilling reached an almost parodic height on "Beautiful Freak", when E was playing a fragile electric piano part and Tommy strolled on and added an understated accompaniment - on the French horn. Other instruments included a theremin, a telephone and a Walkman, and all of them enhanced the music rather than just being gimmicks.

A bizarre art-grunge version of Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend", and E's often hilarious comments and moves, were the final confirmations that the Eels are far from the usual American indie band. Ninety minutes of misery and alienation, and I was grinning from start to finish.

The last time Johnny Cash was at the Albert Hall, the grizzled legend was suffering from a damaged facial nerve. The show was fine, but at the same venue two years on, with the Man in Black back in the pink, the difference was astonishing. At 65, he skipped onstage, strode up to the microphone and shook his hips, a much younger man in a big rubber slab of a Johnny Cash mask. "It's good to be in London feeling good," he mumbled after the traditional "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash", and sang "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" in a voice as rich and expansive as the one he had when he first recorded them.

Next, he applied his inscrutable hillbilly menace, big-hearted sincerity and deep, oaken vocals to selections from his latest album, Unchained (American). Featuring songs by Soundgarden, Beck and Tom Petty alongside some which Cash remembers from the Thirties and Fifties, this record continues the process, started by 1994's American Recordings, of rebuilding his status as a vibrant contemporary artist on the one hand and a mythological founding father of rock'n'roll on the other. It's a thrill to hear such a spry record, and it's a thrill to hear Cash sing it live, with a hard- hitting band who can match him all the way. The people who couldn't match him were his family. Nick Lowe, Cash's son-in-law, dueted with him on one song, "Without Love", before sprinting off. If his haste seemed odd at the time, it would soon be appreciated as a sign of good judgement: he was the only member of Clan Cash who didn't outstay his welcome.

First John Jr took centre stage for four songs, and then June Carter, the feisty Mrs Cash, sang seven more, in between lengthy lectures on the significance of the Carter family in country music history. Cash had introduced this as his "favourite part of the show", but maybe that was because he could retreat to his dressing room while the rest of us had to listen to his other half yakking. One couldn't blame Cash for introducing some variety to his show, but as it was over two and a quarter hours' long, it could have well done without the padding.

Silver Sun, the energetic London four-piece whose debut album is released in a week, were at Camden Dingwalls on Tuesday. But as they played a very short set, late at night, I'll write just a very short review, late in the column. Vacuum-tight bubblegrunge. Sugarcoated three-part harmonies, like the vocal equivalent of a Red Arrows display. Teenage Fanclub with teenage energy. The Beach Boys on turbo-charged jetskis. And finally, the criticism: James Broad's smug-nerd persona is staggeringly irritating. If the rest of the band can gag him between songs, they'll be stars.

Eels: Manchester Academy (0161 275 4815), tonight; Astoria, W1 (0171 434 0403), Tues.