It was clear within seconds of the commencement of Eels‘ first single, 1996’s “Novocaine For The Soul”, that intriguing things were afoot. Eels – a flag of convenience for Californian songwriter Mark Everett – were instantly a revelation. “Novocaine For The Soul” was weird, assembled from electronic drums, strings, crashing guitars and the tinkling if toy instruments, but nevertheless a colossal pop song. If it had been a one-shot novelty it would have been likeable. It was, however, a marker for a consistently astounding career.
Eels exude all that can be wonderful about what is – often derisively – described as college rock (intelligence, wit, sensitivity, disdain of oppressive machismo, fascinated horror of cliche) without being disfigured by its all-too-common blemishes (soullessness, zaniness, resemblance to They Might Be Giants). As a songwriter, E, whose weather-beaten whisper is a perfect vehicle for his bleakly droll songs of death, dysfunction and heartbreak, suggests the result of a (frankly overdue) laboratory experiment to combine the defining merits of Mark Eitzel and Randy Newman.
This trove commemorating Eels‘ first decade is in two parts. Meet The Eels is a straightforward best of accompanied by a DVD of promo videos – even if the inclusion of just two cuts from Eels‘ masterpiece, 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues is curious. Useless Trinkets is a 50-track double CD of b-sides, out-takes, radio sessions, live recordings and unreleased sundries, accompanied by a DVD from a show at Lollapalooza 2006.
While Meet The Eels is a solid introduction for the unenlightened, Useless Trinkets is several successive Christmases for the fan. The more obvious of the included treasures are the covers (“Dark End Of The Street”, “I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”, “Can’t Help Falling In Love”) but the sum reveals that Eels‘ seam of wry melancholy runs even deeper than previously imagined. And, of course, E remains rock’s most judicious swearer: one thrills, again, to consider the vast canon of longing balladry rendered redundant by the lines, “It’s a motherfucker, being here without you.”
Q AND A: MARK EVERETT
Is the ‘1996-2006’ subtitle indicative of a chapter closing?
Kind of. Universal wanted to do a best of a couple of years ago, but we weren’t ready – we wanted to get involved and get it right, but yes, there was a feeling of clearing the decks to think ahead.
How much stuff did you have to listen to to compile Useless Trinkets?
It’s by no means all-inclusive. There was a lot of stuff to sift through – it took about two years, in between doing other things.
Did you enjoy listening to it all?
I really don’t like to look back, and it has been weird because all I’ve been doing is looking back. If you’re not cringing at some things you’ve done you haven’t grown, but I’m really looking forward to getting back to the future.
INTERVIEW: ANDREW MUELLER