Meet The Eels: Essential Eels
Vol. 1, 1996-2006
Record Review by Adam McKibbin
“Life is funny, but not ha-ha funny,” Mark Oliver Everett sings matter-of-factly on “3 Speed.” Everett (better known as simply “E”) is right about that, of course, and that simple line goes a long way in summing up the catalog of his band Eels - a catalog that gets a lavish celebration between this 24-track, 12-video collection and the whopping Useless Trinkets collection of B-sides and other rarities that was released separately (50 tracks on that one, plus a Lollapalooza concert DVD).
The musical world of Eels is quirky but not jokey - at least if you keep them away Missy Elliott (if we take the names of these new collections literally, the uninspired cover of “Get Ur Freak On” would have been much better suited for Useless Trinkets). E really hit his stride with 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues, an album of heartbreak and loss and grief that still managed to be comforting. It remains his finest hour, and, as such, graces Essential Eels with its most truly essential sequence of songs - if anything, there should have been a few more Electro-Shockers tossed in.
In songs like “Flyswatter” and “Climbing To The Moon,” there’s a whimsical, childlike element to the instrumentation, even as the songs tackle some dark material (an early solo album was called Broken Toy Shop, which hints at the sound). At his best, E handles this sort of juxtaposition as well as anyone. Two songs from Daisies of the Galaxy well represent his comfort at both ends of emotional spectrum: “It’s A Motherfucker” is a brokenhearted ballad set against a frail piano and a politely cinematic string section, while “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” represents Eels at their most commercial, a propulsive feel-good piece with the memorable refrain “Goddamn right it’s a beautiful day” (in the liner notes - a definite selling feature, albeit more so on the Useless Trinkets collection - E briefly mentions the friction the song caused with the label (they wanted it as a single, he couldn’t make it work within the whole of the album, so they took the odd step of placing it as a hidden track and still releasing it as a single). E notes that even the title caused some unease, but clarifies that he resisted the rather more appealing title “Beautiful Day” because “U2 would be needing that title in a few years.”
Ideally, any still-active artist would probably prefer that their Greatest Hits collection, when arranged chronologically, would end on a high note, suggesting that the best could be yet to come. Clearly someone considered this, as Meet The Eels is labeled as “Vol. 1” - and, strictly speaking, it ends with a flourish, on the effervescent “Losing Streak.” But the shiniest gold in this Eels treasure chest lays in the early-middle - it’s the Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy material. The earlier batch includes the once-ubiquitous single “Novocaine For The Soul” and the overcooked story-song “Susan’s House.” Later tracks like “Trouble With Dreams” seem to repave roads already traveled (in “Flyswatter,” in that case).
E and his Eels are plenty worthy of celebration, and Meet The Eels is chock full of goodies. Hell, just their mere survival deserves applause and admiration - it once seemed likely that they would be consigned to the purgatory of MTV One Hit Wonders, but here they are, over a decade later, with a rabid cult following and seemingly the only band left on a major label. Despite the generous heaping of tracks, though, first time listeners may be better off starting with a full album from the catalog (Electro-Shock Blues, preferably), and then coming to Meet The Eels not to meet, but to deepen the relationship.
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