Saturday, August 4, 2012

All The Not-Hits By A Band That Never Hit: Useless Trinkets By Eels.

The Good: Musically interesting, A few lyrics
The Bad: None of the remixes truly add anything to the songs, Not a cohesive album
The Basics: Interesting, but hardly revelatory or intriguing, or even a necessity (especially for those not into Eels), Useless Trinkets is an interesting set to listen to, but not to buy.

On some level, I suppose I have to admire E, the constant member of Eels for his creativity and chutzpah. I suppose chutzpah and spunk have a connotation of energy and enthusiasm that would often not be associated with Eels or E, whatwith his frequently depressing lyrics. But the way E is brazenly ballsy in a commercial way requires a new word and "chutzpah" might just be the best one I've got. I say this as I sit down to consider Useless Trinkets: B-Sides, Rarities and Unreleased [Tracks] from 1996 - 2006 by Eels.

Despite having no major radio hits, a loyal but small fan base and little recognizable to those who are not in the know about Eels, E and Eels released not only Meet The Eels: The Essential Eels and then Useless Trinkets." It is almost the stamp of defiance on the establishments of pop-rock music for a virtually unknown group to release enough material to warrant a "Best Of" album, but it is certainly a thumbing one's nose in the face of such establishments to release a b-sides compilation. For such audacity, one hopes E and Eels made some money. After all, without the high overhead of major studios, albums like Useless Trinkets can both raise awareness of a band and can make a little profit and if it goes to the artist, that is always encouraging. Unfortunately, outside one or two obscure tracks or covers, Useless Trinkets lives more up to its name than it manages to challenge or intrigue listeners.

With two discs and a total of fifty tracks (25 on each disc) totaling about two and a half hours of music (73:52 and 76:19, respectively), Useless Trinkets is a collection of obscure b-sides, covers, and live takes of songs performed by Eels over the course of ten years. The result is several of the songs (like "Jennifer Eccles" and "I Put A Spell On You") are not actually written by E. Moreover, live tracks like the BBC presentations of "Hospital Food" and "Flower" take the production elements out of E's hands. As well, remixes that appear on the album, like the Michael Simpson Remix of "Your Lucky Day In Hell" and the Moog Cookbook Remix of "Novocaine For The Soul" allow others to offer alternate interpretations of the songs. Ultimately, Useless Trinkets offers little that is distinctly Eels or even truly unique to this collection.

Despite the potential for a number of interesting remixes or presentations, Useless Trinkets repeats a lot of its own material. "Novocaine For The Soul," one of Eels more recognizable songs, appears on the album twice, as a live version and a remix. The thing is, the versions are not fundamentally different and there is something lazy about the remixes for the same songs appearing on the same disc on the album. Moreover, there are three variations of "My Beloved Monster" on the first disc and two different versions of "Mr. E's Beautiful Blues" on the second disc. Despite the overall length of the set, there is a sense of repetition and a lack of originality that causes the album to hold up poorly over multiple listens. The result is that unless one is already a fan of Eels, Useless Trinkets is unlikely to sell the listener on becoming one.

E's vocals on Useless Trinkets vary from the smooth, gentle vocals on songs like "Jennifer Eccles" and "Susan's Apartment" to the angry growl of "F#&!@r" to the yelling rant of "I Like Birds" (which is presented live on this album). His vocals on "Can't Help Falling In Love" make him sound either drunk or bored with the song. But largely on the remixes and obscure songs, there is an overproduced quality to the vocals that obscures any real sense of his natural voice. So, for example, on "Christmas Is Going To The Dogs," E's voice is so mechanized that it bears almost no resemblance to the way he opens "Mighty Fine Blues," which follows it.

E's vocals are familiarly mopey on racks like "Taking A Bath In Rust," which might be some of E's great lyrics, but they are marred by almost indecipherable presentation of the lyrics. And the less said about the vocals on "I Put A Spell On You," the better.

Instrumentally, Useless Trinkets continues a fine tradition of Eels utilizing a pretty wide array of musical instruments and production elements to create a sound that is distinctly pop rock. While some might wonder why I do not declare the music on these albums "distinctly Eels," it is quite simply because Eels is simultaneously more experimental (track to track there is little consistency in sound) and routinely blase, creating a pop-rock sound that is familiar from a band that never made it big. Songs like "Eyes Down" could have been written, performed and produced by virtually any pop-rock garage band.

What usually separates Eels from other groups is the quality of the lyrics. Unfortunately, not all of the songs on Useless Trinkets illustrate that. Outside of cover versions of songs like "Can't Help Falling In Love" and "I Put A Spell On You," which might not be the greatest-written songs of all time, some of Eels more ridiculous songs ended up in alternate versions on this album. It is hard to see "I Like Birds" as great Eels when its lyrics are simple like "I can't look at the rocket launch / The trophy wives of the astronauts / And I won't listen to their words / 'cause I like / Birds / I don't care for walking downtown / Crazy auto-car gonna mow me down / Look at all the people like cows in a herd / Well, I like / Birds / If you're small and on a search / I've got a feeder for you to perch on." E and Eels might have decent diction, but sometimes their silly lyrics are just absurdist.

Conversely, some of the more fun songs on the album, like "Jelly Dancers" and "Vice President Fruitley" have simplistic rhymes and still work. "Jelly Dancers" has an Indian feel to it and works as a duet between E and an Indian woman as a strong dance number. Eels does fun just fine when it attempts to, with songs like "Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas." E turns traditional Christmas pop songs on their ear when he sings "Remember last year when you were on your own / You swore the spirit couldn't be found / December rolled around and you were counting on it / To roll out . . . Well everybody's lookin' for you down at the house / The tree is looking so inspired / There's a yuletide groove waitin' for you to move / I'll go and throw another log on the fire / Everything's gonna be cool this Christmas" ("Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas"). E is a decent writer with a wry sense of humor.

But what E is more known for than a sense of humor is his dark, moody lines. One of the b-sides that appears on Useless Trinkets, "After The Operation," continues E's tradition of depressing musical story-songs that are fairly autobiographical. This mellow, depressive song chronicles exactly what the title suggests, "After the operation / I was in a lotta pain / But I look fondly on it / Just passin' all the days in a haze / Layin' on the couch / And watchin' TV / After the operation / I didn't have a care / I'd spend whole afternoons / Just layin' there" ("After The Operation"). It might not be the most impressive song, but the lyrics in this case are distinctly Eels.

This, however, is not quite enough to sell the listener on Useless Trinkets." The title, most likely intended ironically is not entirely appropriate, but it does not fail to describe what most listeners will find on the album. The songs are short, diverse but ultimately leave little overall impression, making it a tough sell to anyone who was not already biased toward buying the work anyway.

The best songs are the live version of "Dark End Of The Street" (Disc 1) and the just plain fun "Jelly Dancers" on Disc 2. The low points of this set are the less inspired BBC production of "Hospital Food" (Disc 1) and the boring and creepy live version of "I Put A Spell On You" (on Disc 2, which my fiance rightfully declared "the worst version of the song I've ever heard!").

For other works by Eels, be sure to check out my reviews of:
A Man Called E
Blinking Lights And Other Revelations
Electro-Shock Blues
Meet The Eels - Essential Eels Vol. I 1996 – 2006


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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