When the double album Blinking Lights & Other Revelations was released in early 2005, my friend Noah remarked, “that’s a whole lot of Eels.” Little did he know what was to come over the next three years. With Strings: Live at Town Hall would be an extra long concert album, only to be followed up with not one but two extended compilations! Yes, the past few years have been an Eels fan’s dream come true. Meet the Eels is one of those two comps, a primer for the band’s work over the last ten years, 24 tracks from six studio albums and the concert CD, along with twelve videos on a DVD that also include commentary from E and his dog, Bobby Jr. Useless Trinkets is two more audio discs, with fifty tracks and another DVD of the Eels’ 2006 Lollapalooza performance. All told, that’s 92 songs from Eels, which is going to make it incredibly difficult to address specific songs so I’m not really going to try, released on the same day. Man, now that’s a lot of Eels!
I remember vividly the day that I first saw `E.’ I was at Pauley Pavilion, traveling around the floor of a `college music’ tour, mostly looking for free promos and swag. Performing by himself with a guitar was a bespectacled, tousle-haired guy that turned out to be E. I can picture it, and I remember he sang a song about Mr. Spock, but that’s all I can suss out of my addled memory. This was about five years before E would impress me with an album called Beautiful Freak. Since that time, E as Eels has been consistently delivering emotionally complex and enjoyable pop music, seemingly non-stop. Songs of the Eels deal with incredibly dark stuff, yet are set to rocking guitars, playful organs and upbeat drum tracks. Somehow, E has been able to address difficult topics in his music without losing the conventions of pop music, and without seeming a `downer.’ In his first Eels single, “Novocaine for the Soul,” he admits a need for that which is expressed in the title, the irony being that the song itself becomes just that for the listener. It’s been like that ever since.
Useless Trinkets is anything but the title suggests. It’s an absolute treasure for people like me who can’t get enough of E’s infectious compositions. Besides a bunch of remixes and b-sides, there are live tracks and a few covers. I’ve always felt a kinship with E, ever since Beautiful Freak. Listening to his lyrics made me realize that he felt the same way I did about life, music and sorrow. But I never realized just how much we were alike until I realized that he was a Prince fan and that he includes not one, but two masterful Prince covers on Useless Trinkets. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” amps up the guitars rather than playing on the smoother downbeat aspects of the song a la TLC, while “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” emphasizes the mischievous aspects of the original, which took place during Prince’s `hippie’ phase.
There’s not a whole lot that’s dislikable about these two compilations. Most of the time, these types of albums are released as contractual obligation slot fillers without much input from the artist. Not so here. Not only is this a fairly complete collection filler, presenting almost everything that an Eels fan could want or need, but E contributes extensive liner notes on every song, and provides a commentary track for the videos in which he rightfully disparages the video for “Susan’s House,” that breaks every rule of videomaking, especially the idea of literally interpreting the lyrics on film. I find it difficult to address the Eels’ material from a detached standpoint as I’m such a fan, and have been for many years, but I can definitely recommend both of these compilations to people who maybe had never heard of E (though after his songs appeared in the Shrek movies, those people may be hard to find). As far as quirky folk pop acts go, you can keep your Beck albums and throw away the Cake, I’ll take a dip with Eels every time.
Tom Waits- Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers &
R.E.M.- And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years
Ben Folds- Rockin the Suburbs