Eels Useless Trinkets; Essential Eels

[DreamWorks; 2008]

Rating: 3.5; 4/5

Styles: alternative pop, singer-songwriter, post-grunge
Others: Cake, Beck, Alfie, Ben Folds, Graham Coxon

Following hot on the heels of Beck, with a vaguely similar hybrid of alternative rock and folky hip-hop, all but guaranteed that Mark "E" Everett's roving band of Eels project would be underappreciated in its time. And, lo, while Beck is now an international superstar, the Eels are basically on par with Badly Draw Boy in North American eyes as distinguishable, but not all that recognizable. Though that has led to some struggle in the band (with longtime drummer Butch Norton being forced to walk away in 2003 after filing for bankruptcy), it has probably made E's craft that much stronger and more honest in the long run. The art speaks for itself.

The story of Eels starts in 1992 with the release of Everett's first solo album as E and its ‘93 follow-up, Broken Toy Shop. Neither of them sold particularly well, and he was dropped from Polydor shortly thereafter, but the latter album saw E's first collaboration with Butch, who, along with Tommy Walter, would together form the first incarnation of Eels for their 1996 debut. As one of the first bands to sign with DreamWorks, the melancholy pop record Beautiful Freak would set the bar for their label and the tone for the Eels catalogue. Freak achieved adequate respect in Britain, and supporting tours would see their live reputation grow in Europe and North America. However, Walter would leave the group in late ‘97, under circumstances similarly vague to Butch's departure some years later. Essential Eels, their first greatest hits compilation, collects three singles from their debut as well as "My Beloved Monster," which was also released on the Shrek soundtrack.

E wouldn't be able to immediately embrace his newfound success, though. Shortly after Beautiful Freak was released, his sister committed suicide and a vicious form of cancer claimed his mother's life. Thus, the subject matter of 1998's Electro-Shock Blues dealt mostly with death and both mental and physical varieties of disease. The supporting tours saw Eels maintain a trio with Butch and some guy who replaced Walter but would leave before the next record came out. Sadly, the general public doesn't tend to care all that much for being bummed out, so Blues did not fare quite as positively as its predecessor. As such, only two cuts from the album made the greatest hits and neither of them are the glorious "My Decent Into Madness," but the rich, elegant, previously unreleased Jon Brion remix of "Climbing To The Moon" easily makes up for that oversight.

Daisies Of The Galaxy from 2000 rekindled popular interest with his most thoroughly upbeat and solid record to date. Included as a bonus track after label pressure, "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues" became one of his biggest hits, landing on the soundtrack to Road Trip (whose cast, in turn, appeared in the video that was strangely left off the greatest hits DVD). Quickly following Daisies with Souljacker, the next year saw the slightly darker, Unabomber-jacketed record propelled critically. Souljacker earned him album-of-the-year nods from Time and London's Sunday Times. Those two releases represented a new peak in his popularity, with seven tracks making Essential. During this time, his live band swelled to a sextet counting the likes of Lisa Germano, Koool G. Murder, and PJ Harvey's John Parrish (who co-wrote most of Souljacker). Sadly, this was also the time of Butch's bitter departure.

The next four years, though less on the radar, would be E's most fulfilling as an artist. 2003's Shootenany! was a more stripped-back, bluesy rock album. Recorded live in the studio as a proper rock quartet over a mere 10 days, it showed a whole new side of Eels as a real touring, recording act, as opposed to the glossy production tweaks, samples, and drum machines that ran the bulk of their catalogue to date. Released with little press, the album was later admitted to be just a little distraction for Everett, a break from adding more pieces to his future masterwork and what would be his first album for Vagrant. Blinking Lights And Other Revelations would finally hit the shelves in 2005 as a sprawling 33-track epic, one of the few double-rock albums seen since vinyl fizzled out of mainstream esteem. Featuring contributions from Tom Waits, John Sebastian (Lovin' Spoonful), and Peter Buck of R.E.M., buzz circulated in the wake of his well-liked Eels With Strings tour (which would result in their first real live album), and recognition for the opus saw it achieve the highest chart position E had yet to receive. Five of Blinking Lights' songs appear on the hits as well as the strings version of "Dirty Girl."

"I Need Some Sleep" from the Shrek 2 soundtrack and a non-essential but undeniably quirky cover of Missy Elliot's "Get Ur Freak On" round out the best of ‘96 to ‘06 collection. As usual, most fans will already own the majority of his original albums. The two exclusives aren't gonna be enough to push them over the edge, not in our internet age, but the bonus DVD of 12 videos will surely win over the unacquainted and completists who can look past the old "unreleased tracks on a greatest hits" cash-grab. The tracklisting is ordered chronologically, which is a nice touch for the newbies likely targeted by this release.

For the rest of us, Universal has got us covered with a 2CD, 50-track compilation of B-sides, rarities, soundtrack, and unreleased material called Useless Trinkets, which has amazingly few throwaways. In fact, if you don't know ahead of time, it's next to impossible to tell the rarities from the greatest hits. There are a couple of fine Xmas songs there, on par with The Flaming Lips' "A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn't So)," and the remixes and live cuts all do an amazing job of honoring the spirit of the originals while completely reimagining them. The live version of Prince's "If I Was Your Girlfriend" has more balls than a pool table with a massive amount of post-grunge distortion leading into a liquid-smooth groove and some of E's most melodic singing, while "Susan's Apartment" drags "Susan's House" down to the jiving back alley where gritty Blaxploitation funk meets spoken-word hip-hop. As such, Useless Trinkets is vital for any fan. And yet, the consistent, undeniable quality of the selection would lend itself to do just as good a job as an introduction to Everett's material as Essential. Either way, this is all the Eels you can handle.

Useless Trinkets

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