More Eels Than You Can Shake a Stick At
After ten years as mastermind of the Eels, Mark Oliver Everett (a.k.a. E) has finally decided to take a breath and take stock of his creation. It’s a good thing, too, since along with being one of modern rock’s most distinctive talents, Everett has also been surprisingly prolific. This in spite of several family tragedies that, rather than slow Everett down, actually seemed to fuel his creativity as a form of self-therapy. 1998’s astounding Electro-Shock Blues, for example, tackled head-on the deaths of his sister and mother, and songs full of crystal-clear grief like “Dead of Winter” cemented Everett’s status as an artist who could be counted on for emotional honesty.
That was never really in doubt, though, even as early as 1996’s Beautiful Freak. Everett might have started the album off by singing “life is hard, and so am I”, but the rest of Beautiful Freak told an altogether different story. Songs like “My Beloved Monster” and “Susan’s House”, with its images of street violence and teen pregnancy, give off the overwhelmed vibe of a sensitive soul in a hard world. If there was any hardness, it seemed to be little more than a defense mechanism. In fact, if Everett’s music contains any single defining quality, it’s probably vulnerability, and the feel of each record—from the pensiveness of Electro-Shock Blues to the aggressive facade of Souljacker—is really just a different level of access to the questions on Everett’s mind. Whether he’s whispering over a light acoustic melody, growling his way through a thicket of electric guitars, or letting loose his whole toybox full of sounds, the best Eels songs always possess an easily identifiable emotional center.
Everett’s aesthetic, then, was firmly in place early on (even on the two solo records he cut before forming the Eels) and he’s only strengthened it over the years. Listening to an Eels record is something like standing in a field, as a succession of clockwork birds fly up to sing their songs to you and then flit away. You can’t help but be startled by the beauty of it, but every once in a while your mind wanders in appreciation of the gears and springs that make the whole thing work. If there’s ever been a problem with Everett’s style, it’s that the occasional song gets stifled.
So it’s good to see Useless Trinkets: B Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities and Unreleased 1996-2007 come along. With a whopping 50 tracks worth of rare Eels, it initially sounds like overkill. Instead, it offers insight into not only Everett’s creative process, but also into the obvious care that’s gone into fashioning each Eels record’s sonic identity. Everett’s always been fond of playing with his songs and giving the results different names, in apparent recognition that he’s changing the songs’ focus in the process. “My Beloved Monster”, “My Beloved Mad Monster Party”, “My Beloved Monstrosity”, for example, are all variations on the same song. He has similar fun with the drained-of-emotion “(Live from Hell)” and playful “(Moog Cookbook Remix)” versions of “Novocaine for the Soul”, as well as the funkier “Susan’s Apartment” version of “Susan’s House”. Everett’s not the cut-and-paster that the Cure’s Robert Smith showed himself to be way back on 1990’s Mixed Up, but Everett shows himself to be acutely aware of a song’s heart, and how to move it around for different effects. So if you take only the alternate and live versions on Trinkets, you get a sense of albums that might exist in some alternate universe.
Trinkets overflows with those kinds of unexpected gems, from the covers (Daniel Johnston’s “Living Life”, a you’d-swear-it-was-Nick-Cave take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”, and an ornery rendition of Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend”) to live BBC tracks and cuts from last year’s Live at Town Hall to songs Everett’s contributed to films. There’s even a couple of Christmas songs. A companion DVD captures six songs from the band’s 2006 Lollapalooza performance, featuring yet another variation on “My Beloved Monster”, this time a strong gospel-flavored workup.
Ironically, Trinkets is presented as a die-hards only kind of collection. But it would work equally well as an introduction to the band, as it contains all of the important elements that define the Eels sound (including, arguably, a little more variety due to the different feel many of these songs have).
Placed side-by-side, Meet the Eels: Essential Eels 1996-2006, Vol. 1 might seem paltry with its mere 24 cuts. But these tracks are arguably the heart and soul of the Eels legacy: songs like “Your Lucky Day in Hell”, “Railroad Man”, “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues”, and “Flyswatter” (ironically, a song that Everett once said he regretted leaving on Daisies of the Galaxy because he felt it didn’t really fit; if he’d followed that instinct, it would have made for one heck of a propulsive deep cut on Trinkets). Songs that capture that constant push-and-pull between Everett’s vulnerability, his wry worldview, and the temptation to hide both of them behind walls of quirky sound. You could debate the inclusion or exclusion of a few songs, but Meet the Eels absolutely works as a cohesive introduction to the Eels sound. The set’s not bereft of value for the diehards, either. In addition to a Jon Brion remix of “Climbing to the Moon” and a surprising cover of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” to tempt those of us who already have all the regular Eels tracks, the collection also features a DVD collecting twelve of the band’s videos.
Two ways to go, and neither one of them risky. If you’re unfamiliar with the Eels, Meet the Eels will definitely clue you into what the band’s all about, while Useless Trinkets (regardless of its name might imply) shows just how deep the Eels song stash goes. In between? There’s a good half dozen Eels records to show you everything in between.
Useless Trinkets: B Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities and Unreleased 1996-2007
Meet the Eels: Essential Eels 1996-2006, Vol. 1