In 1996 a man who called himself E cast aside his burgeoning solo career to form a band called Eels. Their debut single was a little ditty called "Novocaine for the Soul," which became a relatively huge hit in the days when MTV still played videos. The single incorporated dusty record samples with a troubadour’s songwriting sensibility, much in the vein of the material Beck would deliver that same year on Odelay. In the decade that has followed, the Eels never reached the same commercial success as Beck, but they managed to gain a cultish following and an impressive body of work – the gestalt of which is captured by two simultaneously released collections: Meet the Eels and Useless Trinkets.
Meet the Eels attempts to assemble the "essential" tracks from the band’s six proper studio albums, and for the most part it succeeds. All of the Eels’ quasi-hits are included — the aforementioned "Novocaine," the twee-synth pop of "Last Stop: This Town," the characteristically tongue-in-sad-cheek of "Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues," with its "Goddamn right it’s a beautiful day" chorus. Wisely, it’s not limited to singles. There’s a sampling of key album tracks that almost represents the full spectrum of the bands’ output. At twenty-four tracks and a bonus DVD, though it may be an intimidating way for newcomers to “meet” the Eels, especially when certain songs ("I Like Birds") feel a bit out of place when removed from the otherworld created by the original album. Still it’s a great collection that shows how distinct (read: different from Beck’s) E’s songwriting is.
On the other hand, the fifty-track Useless Trinkets is almost self-destructive. Multiple versions of "My Beloved Monster" are unnecessary, and I dare you to make heads or tales of "Vice President Fruitley." But there are some amazing discoveries to made. The BBC recording of "Flower," for instance, is heartbreaking, and the Moog Cookbook version of "Novocaine" is a kitschy classic. The Eels prove themselves to be a rewarding band, but on Useless Trinkets, you’re going to have to do some mining to find the real gold.