CD Review of Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities, and Unreleased 1996-2006 by The Eels
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The Eels:
Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Soundtracks, Rarities, and Unreleased 1996-2006

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


n terms of actual hits, Eels are really no better off than Sponge, or Primitive Radio Gods, or any of a dozen other mid ‘90s “alternative” pop bands who helped bridge the radio gap between Nirvana and the Spice Girls. (In fact, by this standard, Eels may have been even less important than the Spin Doctors.) The “band” – really a revolving cast of musicians behind songwriter Mark “E” Everett – had two advantages over those other acts, however: First, they were signed to DreamWorks Records, a label with a small roster, (temporarily) deep pockets, and a commitment to artist development; and second, Everett’s songs.

Mark Oliver Everett, of The EelsEels’ sole Top 40 hit, 1996’s “Novocaine for the Soul,” presented them as Beck-esque practitioners of grungy slacker pop, but that – like pretty much anything else you could say about the band – was misleading; what at first seemed like a pose designed to break Everett out of the commercial anonymity that had cost him a solo deal with Polydor was really just the sound of a songwriter trying to disassemble his muse, find the essential bits, and throw away the rest. He’s remained more or less on that path ever since, which is why the Eels retrospective bonanza unleashed by Geffen – three CDs and two DVDs between this collection and its “best of” counterpart, Meet the Eels Vol. 1 – isn’t as ridiculously excessive as it sounds. You see, since “Novocaine” faded from the airwaves, Everett’s been quite busy: Over the last decade and change, Eels have released five albums, one double album, and a live set – not bad for an act whose records have only cracked Billboard’s Top 200 twice.

And then there’s the stuff they haven’t released.

Most odds & sods collections are fan-only affairs, but Useless Trinkets takes that approach and stretches it until it’s big enough to fit two CDs, 50 songs, and a six-song concert DVD. This is not the place to begin your Eels collection, in other words; in fact, unless you own everything else the band has released, much of it will likely be lost on you. But then, the Eels’ music has never been purposely easy – Everett is the guy who took his sister’s suicide and his mother’s cancer diagnosis and used them to create the band’s second album, the dark-as-the-title-sounds Electro-Shock Blues – so this collection’s generosity to a fault fits right in with the rest of the group’s catalog.

You’ll find the usual stuff here: Live cuts, remixes, alternate versions, unreleased cuts (some of them bordering on marginalia), covers, and songs rescued from various soundtracks. Given their far-flung origins, the contents could be forgiven for lacking cohesion, but they run together more or less seamlessly; even throwaway cuts like the Moog Cookbook remix of “Novocaine for the Soul” don’t sound out of place. The coolest bits for fans might be the covers, which range from a surprisingly tender “Dark End of the Street” to takes on Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” (Word to the wise: Don’t play the cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” around babies or the faint of heart.)

The DVD, which presents footage from a 2006 Lollapalooza performance, is a nice addition, but probably not as valuable to fans as the collection of videos appended to Meet the Eels. It seems like an underhanded attempt on Geffen’s part to get fans to buy both collections – and it probably is – but ultimately, it’s hard to find fault with retrospectives this lovingly curated for an act that has never been much more than a red footnote in the record company’s ledgers. Not to mention that the fans were probably going to buy both sets anyway.

This music is certainly not for everyone, as evidenced by its cult status. But the next time you need to buy a gift for someone who loves pop music with a little dirt under its fingernails, drop the $40 on this and Meet the Eels – or hell, if that description applies to you, go get them for yourself right now. Either way, it’ll be money well spent.

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