The Eels deliver a full and fair compilation of decade’s worth of tunes on their greatest hits collection, Meet The Eels: Essential Eels, Vol. 1 1996-2006. The band surrounding singer/songwriter Mark Oliver Everett hasn’t released a new album since 2005’s Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, or anything since the following year’s Eels with Strings: Live At Town Hall, yet they open this year with both a greatest hits album and a b-sides and rarities collection, Useless Trinkets (QRO review). On this ‘best of’, Everett does draw from all eras, and one can really see how he’s grown.
The twenty-four-song record begins with four numbers off of The Eels’ 1996 debut, Beautiful Freak (Meet The Eels does not include any of his prior, solo work as ‘E’). While the grooving, smart-smooth “Susan’s House” and “Your Lucky Day In Hell” work well and never feel too clever, opener “Novocaine For the Soul” is maybe a bit too cute, yet still has a strong beat, while the grunge-y “My Beloved Monster” doesn’t really stand out. Everett wrote his 1998 follow-up, Electro-Shock Blues, amid the deaths of friends and family, making tracks like “3 Speed” and “Climbing To the Moon” (a previously unreleased remix by Jon Brion) sad and somewhat off par.
Things really kicked into high gear for The Eels at the start of the twenty-first century, and Daisies of the Galaxy. “Flyswatter” has some Beck-style funk, while “I Like Birds” and “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues” are utterly catchy and enjoyable. But even the sad piano & strings ballad “It’s a Motherfucker” seems finer than earlier material, short & sweet. While the title track to 2001’s Souljacker has a kind of simple garage-drive, the mix of deadpan and staccato beat that The Eels often use hits a highpoint on the record, with the calico-sixties weird “That’s Not Really Funny” and laid-back sixties-bright “Fresh Feeling”. But just to keep things even more interesting, you get even Beck-funkier when the previously unreleased “Get Ur Freak On” is thrown in.
As the title to 2003’s Shootenanny! indicates, Everett headed in a more Americana vein with the record, but didn’t lost his humor. “Saturday Morning” is some fun rollick-rock, with a little extra something added to the mix, while the restrained “Love of the Loveless” moves perfectly. The live “Dirty Girl” on Meet The Eels is taken from Eels with Strings, and the orchestral arrangement actually allows the number to be more stripped-down and emotional; it should be too sweet, but instead is just a great combination of alt-country wryness and heart. A pale copy, Shrek 2’s “I Need Some Sleep”, follows it; like Shrek’s “My Beloved Monster”, “Sleep” is just too limited and simple.
But Meet The Eels closes with five tracks off their latest – and quite possibly greatest, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (curiously, though Blinking Lights was the first Eels record since leaving DreamWorks/Geffen, it is included on the greatest hits released by Geffen – perhaps the fact that it was the most successful Eels record to-date had something to do with it…). The ultra-catchy beat and harmony of “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)” should suffer from way too obvious lyrics, but Everett never gets too serious – or too ironic. His stripped-down sad singer/songwriter work doesn’t get any finer than “I’m Going To Stop Pretending That I Didn’t Break Your Heart”. “Trouble With Dreams” grows into something impressive, while “Railroad Man” is strong alt-country troubadour wistfulness. And while “Losing Streak” has a certain seventies horn-singer vibe, like recent Wilco and Spoon, it’s a welcome and working update.
On any greatest hits collection, there are bound to be tracks that shouldn’t have been overlooked, like Beautiful Freak’s “Mental”, Electro-Shock Blues’ “My Descent Into Madness”, Daisies of the Galaxy’s “Sound of Fear”, Souljacker’s “Bus Stop Boxer”, Shootenanny!’s “Restraining Order Blues”, or Blinking Lights’ “Whatever Happened To Soy Bomb?” But the only really surprising skip is of Electro-Shock’s “Cancer For the Cure”, the only single not included on the collection. It is, however, part of the bonus DVD of Eels videos. Unfortunately, MTV was a much more hospitable place to alternative music in the nineties than it seems to be today, meaning more videos were made in earlier days. This also means you see a lot of Everett in his alt-grunge ‘spectacles and soul-patch’ look (it’s a relief when you get to later videos, and a full beard). None of the videos are what you would call ‘revolutionary’ (the messing with colors is patently derivative), but the almost stop-motion-like effects on many of them work well with The Eels’ almost drum machine-like beats.
Video for “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living)”:
It doesn’t feel like it’s been ten years of The Eels, though this isn’t necessarily because they feel so recent – some of their nineties material seems like it’s from another band, from another century (wait…). But Mark Oliver Everett has been keeping at it, and Meet The Eels proves that it’s been a worthy pursuit.