Eels: Useless Trinkets

Totaling 74 songs (not counting the DVDs), that's a lotta Eels! So it's surprising that these two collections leave you wanting to hear even more.


Useless Trinkets: B Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities and Unreleased 1996-2007

Label: Geffen
US Release Date: 2008-01-15
UK Release Date: 2008-01-21


Meet the Eels: Essential Eels 1996-2006, Vol. 1

Label: Geffen
US Release Date: 2008-01-15
UK Release Date: 2008-01-21

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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